Should Georgia allow older adults who were molested as children to sue the people they say abused them?
A state House study committee is set to meet Tuesday to consider reviving Hidden Predator Act legislation for next year, aimed at extending the statute of limitations for sex abuse victims to file claims in court.
Rep. Heath Clark, a Warner Robins Republican, introduced House Bill 479 in the last legislative session to extend the statute of limitations to bring a civil suit to age 38 from 23, and give victims of any age living in Georgia a year to file suit for any past abuse.
Two related bills are not on Tuesday’s study committee agenda, but live on as a reminder of a legal sticking point that stalled the 2019 version of Georgia’s Hidden Predator Act.
The proposals each create legal hurdles in order to bring a lawsuit against organizations like the Boy Scouts of America and the Catholic Church, two groups embroiled in nationwide sex abuse lawsuits. Both organizations lobbied Georgia lawmakers against passing previous versions of proposed Georgia Hidden Predator legislation. Some advocates worry aspects of Clark’s bill will make it harder for victims to sue for past abuse and that could benefit institutions that protected alleged abusers from punishment, while also deterring potential victims from ever coming forward.
“We don’t want to make it harder for victims to get access to those civil remedies,” said Emma Hetherington, a University of Georgia School of Law assistant clinical professor and director of the school’s Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic. “The civil justice system is the only thing that many survivors have left.”
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Lawmakers passed the Hidden Predator Act of 2015 to set the age limit to sue for past abuse to 23, making it possible for victims to have their day in court at an older age. It passed after a tough fight in the Legislature, a hard fought win for the bill’s sponsor, former state Rep. Jason Spencer, a Woodbine Republican.
Along with an extension, the law also included provisions that required private agencies to make records regarding child sexual abuse cases accessible to victims, whether or not the case was closed.
The law helped make it possible for a young woman from Savannah to come forward and sue USA Gymnastics. In the case of Jane Doe v. USA Gymnastics, the woman claimed to have been assaulted when she was 11 by her Savannah gymnastics coach William McCabe.
The Georgia law also helped Indianapolis Star investigative reporters looking into sex abuse allegations force USA Gymnastics to turn over records regarding sexual abuse allegations that exposed the organization’s knowledge of McCabe’s history and its ignorance regarding his urges by his past employers.
Publicity that followed prompted a growing number of young women to describe sexual assaults by Dr. Larry Nassar, then a once-respected doctor working for Michigan State University. Now Nassar, 56, is likely to die in prison after hundreds of survivors testified against him at his 2018 sentencing hearing.
Soon after the sentencing, Spencer proposed the Hidden Predator Act of 2018 that aimed to raise the age limitation for bringing a child sex abuse claim to 38, and give every victim in the state a year to file suit regardless of when the abuse happened.
Spencer’s bill passed through the state House with strong support at the last possible minute before stalling in the Senate, where lawmakers pushed to lower the age limit to 30 and make it difficult to sue organizations. It died amid strong opposition from the Boy Scouts and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta.
In an odd twist, Spencer resigned in humiliation in July 2018 after comedian Sacha Baron Cohen aired a video of the lawmaker after tricking him into yelling a racial slur on TV in summer 2018. That left other concerned lawmakers to take up the cause.
“My concern was that because of what happened with Representative Spencer, nobody was going to touch (his bill),” said state Rep. Teri Anulewicz, a Smyrna Democrat who sponsored the Child Victim Act of 2019, still pending for next year’s legislative session. “After that grand jury testimony came out, I knew we had to do something.”
The Boy Scouts of America’s stance on civil statutes of limitations is more nuanced since early 2018, when the organization lobbied hard against Spencer’s bill. In an emailed statement Wednesday, the Boy Scouts acknowledged that “there have been times when individuals took advantage of our programs to abuse innocent children,” and said it supports extending the statute of limitations for both retroactive and future civil cases.
“We believe victims, we support them, we pay for counseling by a provider of their choice and we encourage them to come forward,” the statement says.
Atlanta Catholic Archdiocese spokeswoman Tatiana Villa would only point to past statements criticizing Spencer’s bill as “unfair.”
Tensions over legal standard
The stage is set for a repeat of earlier debates over how strong the legal case needs to be against the accused abuser to be successful. A “clear and convincing” standard means allegations must be substantially more likely to be true than not.
Clark’s bill calls for the evidence to be “clear and convincing,” which is too high a bar, according to Hetherington and other local attorneys.
“There’s just no need for it and there’s no justification for it,” said Esther Panitch, an Atlanta attorney representing four clients in a case against the Boy Scouts. “Now you’re making it even harder for victims to come forward.”
On the other hand, it should be harder to sue to prevent frivolous or fabricated abuse claims that would clog Georgia’s courts, said state Rep. Wes Cantrell, a Woodstock Republican and a co-sponsor of Clark’s bill.
Victim’s lawyers like Atlanta’s Darren Penn and other advocates prefer a “preponderance of evidence” standard, which means the proof needs to be more likely true than not to be considered factual. Penn represents clients in cases against the Boy Scouts, the Catholic Church and some Atlanta area schools.
Lawmakers hope to use next week’s discussion to start ironing out some of their differences to get something done next year, said state Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, a Decatur Democrat who sits on the House Judiciary subcommittee appointed to review this year’s Hidden Predator Act.
“I’m interested in how the discussion goes,” said Oliver, who is also co-sponsoring the Anulewicz bill. “I like our bill better, but I’m interested in seeing how the discussion goes.”
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