Legal consequences other than conviction
Criminal convictions for any kind of child sexual abuse are rare. The US Department of Justice reports that less than 1 in 5 reported cases of child sexual abuse are charged, and less than half of these end in a conviction or guilty plea. Many survivors or parents who make a report feel disappointed or betrayed if it does not lead to a conviction. Others have some ambivalence--they want the offender to face consequences but may not want to see them go to prison.
In either case, it might be helpful to know this does not have to be all-or-nothing. There are possible legal consequences other than criminal conviction. (I am not an attorney and this is not legal advice. See guidance on finding a lawyer.)
Central (Caregiver) Registry: When child protection authorities find enough evidence to substantiate child sexual abuse, they will place the abuser’s name on a Central Registry, or Caregiver Registry. This typically requires a lower standard of proof than what is required to bring criminal charges or to place someone on the public sex offender registry. Central Registries aren’t generally available to the public, but if the individual applies for a professional license or job working with children or other vulnerable populations, or if they apply to be a foster or adoptive parent, their name will be flagged.
Entering Criminal Charges: When a criminal charge is entered in adult court (no matter the age of the defendant) it becomes part of the public record. In many states these court records are available and searchable online. Technically, a person who has been charged is required to be assumed innocent unless a plea or verdict of guilty is also entered. But in reality, the presence of a charge in the public record can affect the individual’s work and social opportunities.
Bringing a Suit in Civil Court: You may also start a case against someone who has harmed you in civil court. The standard of proof to decide a case in your favor is lower in civil court. They can award damages--money or other kinds of restitution--but cannot convict anyone of a crime. An attorney can directly represent you in civil court, but you have to find and hire the attorney yourself. Often the attorney doesn’t require payment unless they win the case and get a monetary settlement--but this means they will not take your case unless they expect you can win. Most attorneys offer a free initial meeting, where they decide whether or not to take your case. The other party would also have to hire their own attorney as well; the services of a public defender would not be offered.
Natural Consequences: It is not easy to face even the threat of a criminal case, especially for a sexual offense. Defendants who hire their own lawyer face a significant financial expense. When family or friends find out about an offense, this may be the most significant consequence of all.
Restorative Justice: Restorative Justice is a victim-oriented process that focuses on giving survivors voice and control and on bringing truth to light. It provides a safe framework to pave the way for personal healing and healthy relationships and boundaries going forward. It is available in some areas, if everyone involved is motivated to participate. It can be used in addition to or instead of the criminal legal system. It may be an option for adults who experienced harm in the past.