Canada’s Highest Court Delivers Wake-up Call on Child Sexual Abuse UPDATED
The Supreme Court of Canada has spoken out about the pervasiveness of child sexual abuse and the profound harms it causes, and has implored those involved in the justice system to treat this problem with more care and sensitivity. In R. v. Friesen, 2020 SCC 9, a case involving a young victim of sexual offences, our highest court took the opportunity to deliver a wake-up call that extends beyond criminal law to other areas of the law.
As my interest lies with the civil justice system and how it responds to sexual violence against children and other vulnerable persons, I want to speak to why and how R. v. Friesen is relevant to liability and damages in civil cases involving sexualized abuse and misconduct.
The Supreme Court opened its landmark 9-0 decision by stating the obvious: “Children are the future of our country and our communities.” It went on to say it is “send[ing] a strong message” that:
…sexual offences against children are violent crimes that wrongfully exploit children’s vulnerability and cause profound harm to children, families, and communities. Sentences for these crimes must increase. Courts must impose sentences that are proportional to the gravity of sexual offences against children and the degree of responsibility of the offender, as informed by Parliament’s sentencing initiatives and by society’s deepened understanding of the wrongfulness and harmfulness of sexual violence against children.
These powerful opening words have resonance in the civil context too. The claims (or causes of action) and the compensation (or monetary damages) assessment principles that are the bases for civil liability, must similarly be interpreted and applied in ways that reflect the wrongfulness of the sexual exploitation and violation of children, and the profound and often lifelong harms caused by this wrong.
We recently saw an example of such an approach in the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision in MacLeod v. Marshall, 2019 O.N.C.A. 842 (CanLII) – see my earlier post on this case entitled “Lower Threshold for Proving Income Losses in Cases Involving Childhood Sexual Abuse and Injury.” In that case, the Court of Appeal clarified that principles for determining loss of income in historic child sexual abuse cases need to be adapted to the unique circumstances facing a victim whose harms were caused before they had finished school and/or started working. The Court of Appeal affirmed that the usual standard of proof – a balance of probabilities – is too harsh where the victim had not yet had the opportunity to start earning income. Instead, it favoured using the lower standard of “chance” or “real or substantial probability”. Thus, in a civil lawsuit involving childhood sexual abuse, this lower standard of proof applies when assessing both past and future loss of income.
This is precisely the kind of adaptation of the law that the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in R. v. Friesen telegraphs as necessary if we are to recognize and validate the inherent wrongfulness and harmfulness of sexual violence against children. Of note, on April 30, 2020, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the application for leave to appeal that was brought by the unsuccessful defendant religious organization in MacLeod v. Marshall. This means the Court of Appeal’s ruling on how to approach loss of income in a historic childhood sexual abuse case is now the law in Ontario, and a highly persuasive legal authority in the rest of Canada.
While the criminal justice system is focussed on punishing individual offenders, the civil justice system has a special role in providing accountability and redress that extends beyond the individual perpetrator to others responsible for the wrongs and/or harms. The civil justice system is uniquely placed to make those who enable or empower (wittingly or not) perpetrators of child sexual abuse legally accountable. By casting the net of accountability and responsibility more widely and being prepared to do so in ever more insightful and reflective ways, the civil justice system can do its part in responding to the Supreme Court of Canada’s call to action on child sexual violence in R. v. Friesen.
There are many “take-aways” from the landmark decision in R. v. Friesen, and what I have done below is distill what the Supreme Court of Canada has said that, in my view, has direct or indirect application to civil sexualized misconduct and abuse cases.
- The courts are seeing more cases involving sexual violence against children.
- New technologies like the internet are enabling new forms of sexual violence against children, and providing perpetrators with new ways to access and control youth. These technologies are also making qualitative changes to these sexual offences; for example, the online distribution of images repeats the original violation by making its victim live with the knowledge that others may be accessing these images in the future.
- Just as legislators have been recognizing, adapting and trying to keep pace with developments in child sexual abuse, “[c]ourts too have been on a ‘learning curve’ to understand both the extent and the effects of sexual violence against children”. The law has had to and will continue to evolve to respond to its prevalence, and to the different manifestations of the wrong and harms it causes.
- The wrongful nature of child sexual abuse stems from the fact it represents a simultaneous invasion of a child’s personal autonomy, a violation of the child’s bodily and sexual integrity, and an attack on the child’s dignity and equality.
- “Violence is always inherent in the act of applying force of a sexual nature to a child.” Whether or not there is additional physical violence and/or physical injuries that accompany such abuse, any physical contact of a sexual nature with a child is, the Supreme Court has said, “a wrongful act of physical and psychological violence”.
- The attack on personal autonomy, bodily integrity, sexual integrity, dignity and equality that sexual abuse against a child represents means courts must consider the resulting psychological harm which will often be more pervasive and permanent than physical harm.
- Beyond the life altering consequences that flow to those who are targeted, sexual violence against children has ripple effects, including harm to people who are close to these children and harm to relationships. There is also harm to the broader communities in which the targeted children live, as well as to society as a whole:
Some of these costs can be quantified, such as the social problems that sexual violence against children causes, the costs of state intervention, and the economic impact of medical costs, lost productivity, and treatment for pain and suffering … [C]hildren who are victims of sexual violence may be more likely to engage in sexual violence against children themselves when they reach adulthood … Sexual violence against children can thus fuel a cycle of sexual violence that results in the proliferation and normalization of the violence in a given community.
- Courts must impose sentences – and I would add, damages awards – that are commensurate with the gravity of sexual offences against children.
It is not sufficient for courts to simply state that sexual offences against children are serious….courts must recognize and give effect to (1) the inherent wrongfulness of these offences; (2) the potential harm to children that flows from these offences; and (3) the actual harm that children suffer as a result of these offences.
- Sexual violence against children “inherently has the potential to cause several recognized forms of harm”. These are harms that manifest themselves:
- During childhood, such as self-destructive behaviours, acting out, guilty feelings and shame, lack of trust, low self esteem, inability to concentrate in school, running away from home, sleep disturbances and nightmares, anxiety, and depression; and
- During the victim’s adult years, such as difficulty forming loving and caring relationships with others, being prone to engage in sexual violence against children themselves, and struggling with substance abuse, mental illness, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), eating disorders, suicidal ideation, self-harming behaviours, anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, anger and poor self esteem.
- The Supreme Court warned that lower courts must reject the belief there is no serious harm if there was no additional physical violence that caused actual physical injury. It also warned against the tendency to downplay the wrongfulness of child sexual abuse or its harm to the victim where the acts did not involve penetration, fellatio or cunnilingus, but instead involved touching or masturbation. The notion that the latter kinds of sexual touching are “relatively benign” and thus inherently less harmful is, the Supreme Court said, “a myth that must be rejected”. Why? Because it does not provide any meaningful insight into how the actions were experienced by the targeted child.
[C]ourts have at times spoken of the degree of physical interference as a type of ladder of physical acts with touching and masturbation at the least wrongful end of the scale, fellatio and cunnilingus in the mid-range, and penile penetration at the most wrongful end of the scale… This is an error — there is no type of hierarchy of physical acts for the purposes of determining the degree of physical interference. As the Ontario Court of Appeal recognized in Stuckless (2019), physical acts such as digital penetration and fellatio can be just as serious a violation of the victim’s bodily integrity as penile penetration… Similarly, it is an error to assume that an assault that involves touching is inherently less physically intrusive than an assault that involves fellatio, cunnilingus, or penetration. For instance, depending on the circumstances of the case, touching that is both extensive and intrusive can be equally or even more physically intrusive than an act of fellatio, cunnilingus, or penetration. [emphasis added]
- The Supreme Court has reminded us that words matter, including those used by courts when they deal with child sexual abuse. Use of terms like “fondling” or “caressing” must stop. This is because they implicitly characterize the perpetrator’s conduct as erotic or affectionate, instead of inherently violent. Language like this is misleading and risks normalizing the very conduct that is being scrutinized and condemned.
- In cases where the target of sexual abuse is too young or otherwise unable or unavailable to provide direct evidence of the actual harm suffered, courts may nonetheless find actual harm based on factors such as breach of trust, grooming, multiple instances of sexual violence, and the young age of the child. The Supreme Court stressed that direct evidence from children or their caregivers is not required for a court to find that children have suffered actual harm as a result of sexual violence.
- Sexual interference with a child should not be treated as less serious than sexual assault against an adult, and sexual offences against children should generally be punished more severely than the same offences against adults. I would argue this differentiation has already been recognized in the civil context. Damages awarded to victims of child sexual abuse will usually exceed those awarded to adult victims. Whereas the upper range of general damages in child sexual abuse cases can exceed $385,000 (M. v. Marson, 2018 ONSC 3493 (CanLII)), the upper end of such damages where an adult is targeted is more in the range of $300,000 (Zando v. Ali, 2018 ONCA 680 (CanLII), aff’g 2017 ONSC 1289). For more on these kinds of awards, see my posts “Trends in civil sexual abuse awards, Part 1 and Part 2”.
- A child victim’s “participation” in sexual activity is not de facto consent and should never be treated as a mitigating factor. The Supreme Court’s clear directive that such participation is not a legally relevant consideration at sentencing should, I would argue, apply equally to damages in civil sexual abuse cases. The Supreme Court appropriately acknowledged that “Adolescence can be a confusing and challenging time for young people as they grow and mature, navigate friendships and peer groups, and discover their sexuality.” It warned that a victim’s participation should not distract from the harm suffered, and moreover that the absence of additional overt violence, such as weapons, intimidation and physical injury, does not mean the inherent violence of the sexual abuse of the child should be ignored or downplayed.
- Departure from prior precedents, be it from sentencing ranges, and I would add from civil damages awards, may be required to ensure a proportionate punishment and remedy are imposed and granted. The Supreme Court warned that not only should courts be cautious about relying on dated precedents that do not reflect current awareness of the impact of sexual abuse on children, but more recent precedents must also be treated with caution if they simply follow dated precedents. This warning by our top court rings equally true in the civil as in the criminal context.
While protection of children is one of the most fundamental values of Canadian society, the Supreme Court of Canada observed that sexual violence against this vulnerable group “turns this value on its head”. R. v. Friesen is a refreshingly insightful and reflective decision by our highest court that debunks myths and stereotypes and warns about falling prey to common or outdated misconceptions. The Court provides clear direction about how our justice system needs to approach the tragic cases involving child sexual abuse that too often come before it. The Court’s warnings and guidance transcend criminal law and should inform all of the legal contexts in which sexual violence against children arise, including the civil context. R. v. Friesen truly reflects a wake-up call for every one of us.