December 22, 2017

The Palm Beach Gardens attorney has made a career of advocating for
children and adults who have survived sexual abuse.

Palm Beach Gardens attorney Michael Dolce has turned his experience as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse into a movement for change.

Several years ago, Dolce successfully pushed the Florida Legislature to repeal the statutes of limitations for civil and criminal prosecution of child sexual battery. In 2009, he won a $19 million verdict for a child sex abuse victim, and his small civil litigation practice shifted to focus on victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

In 2015, when the work became too much to manage for a small law firm, Dolce joined the 90-attorney Cohen Milstein. Through the firm, he has been able to enact change by suing group homes, child services organizations, universities and individual perpetrators of sex crimes.

Dolce spoke with the Daily Business Review about his work and how he hopes this year’s conversation about sexual assault might expand public understanding of his clients’ suffering. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When did you know you were going to make a career of advocating on behalf of sexual abuse victims?

The first time I advocated for other survivors was in 2004, when I approached the Florida Legislature asking them to repeal the statute of limitations for child sex crimes and testified in public for the first time about my own experiences.

But even then, if you told me this would become a full-time walk of life for me, I would have vehemently disagreed with you. I had done any number of types of civil litigation at that point, but this just kind of took over.

Tell me about the six-year battle you fought on that issue until legislation was passed in 2010.

That was an unnecessarily long battle, in my opinion. We faced opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and the insurance industry, so it took us a long time to overcome that political clout. I started out as just one voice. Then we put together what I call a “grassroots army” of about 200 survivors.

What are the most challenging parts of your job?

Dealing with people who don’t want to look at the truth of what child abuse survivors really go through. It’s an ugly issue that no one wants to think about. People worry for their own children, but they don’t want to look at the reality of what happens to a child — or even adults, for that matter.

You can’t X-ray these injuries. You can’t scan them on an MRI. But you have to get people to understand the depth of the injuries. Getting a jury to appreciate that can be incredibly challenging.

What are you proudest of achieving since you joined Cohen Milstein?

What we’ve managed to do here is represent a lot of survivors and give them a voice. We have changed institutions who have learned from litigation the real danger of looking away from the risk.

We have also managed to hold the abusers accountable. We’ve assisted prosecutors in locking them up. We have held them accountable for civil damages. The firm is willing to go after individual perpetrators who have no insurance to eradicate this type of crime.

When you reach the end of your career, what do you hope your impact will have been?

My No. 1 hope always remains that I will have spared children the walk that I’ve had to take. I think we’ll achieve that by continuing to make institutions safer and continuing to hold abusers accountable who would otherwise repeat their crimes.

In addition, having lived through this myself and knowing that the worst part of it was feeling incredibly alone, I want as long a list as possible of other survivors who have felt the comfort and the empowerment of having others walk with them through their recovery. That’s what we do in these cases: We stand by people who would otherwise feel alone.

How do you think the national conversation surrounding sexual assault might affect your work and your clients in the coming year?

Raising public awareness about what sexual misconduct means to survivors will have a positive impact on the work we do. Far too often, I find myself having to educate judges and juries on the basics of what it means to survive sexual assault and what it takes to recover.

People always say, “Time heals all wounds.” That is the furthest thing from the truth for sexual assault survivors.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I would say to other survivors that if you can reach out to others and give them support, that’s a healing moment. This is not a truth you need to hide from. If you embrace it, it can become very empowering, not just for yourself but for others.

I think we must band together as a community and celebrate the fact that we have survived. Only when we hide from the truth will it kill us.

The full Q&A Profile can be accessed here.