Georgia denies older survivors of child sexual abuse a chance to sue

Rep. Jason Spencer, R - Woodbine, sponsors HB 605, the Hidden Predator Act, at the House Chambers during Crossover day at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
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Rep. Jason Spencer, R - Woodbine, sponsors HB 605, the Hidden Predator Act, at the House Chambers during Crossover day at the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta, on Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

Older Georgians who were sexually abused as children will not be able to sue anytime soon, after legislation to extend the civil statute of limitations foundered in this year’s General Assembly.

The Hidden Predator Act emerged from months of emotional and legally technical hearings as two very different bills, one version in the House of Representatives and another in the Senate. In the end, the two chambers were unable to resolve their differences before the 2018 legislative session ended at midnight Thursday.

“Disheartening,” is how Alan McArthur, 54, who says he was molested by a Boy Scout troop leader decades ago, described the outcome. “Georgia’s a pedophile-friendly state, and the bill was trying to change that.”

House Bill 605 as passed by the House of Representatives would have opened a one-year window during which people McArthur's age wouldn't be prohibited from suing "entities," such as the Scouts or churches, over sexual abuse they endured as children. The legislation might have exposed such organizations to financial damages for letting abuse happen and then covering it up even if the incidents involved people who were long gone. The Senate, fearing a flood of lawsuits, amended the bill by reining in what one Senator described as an "open season" on organizations.

This means Georgia, by some estimations, will remain among the worst states in the nation in terms of access to the civil courts by adult survivors of child sexual abuse. Proponents want it in part because the criminal courts are not an option for older victims. The state eliminated the criminal statute of limitations in 2012 but the change wasn’t retroactive, so the prior 15-year limit still applies to incidents before that.

Many states have extended the time for filing such lawsuits since The Boston Globe exposed widespread abuse in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston in the early 2000s, said Marci Hamilton, the CEO of Child USA. The nonprofit tracks statutes of limitations and rates Georgia's among the five worst in the nation for victims. In two of those five states, New York and Michigan, where former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar was convicted of molesting young female athletes, lawmakers are considering longer statutes of limitations.

This would push Georgia farther down Hamilton’s list. The lawyer and professor at the University of Pennsylvania said lawsuits, even those involving decades-old cases, can prompt organizations to tighten sexual abuse reporting policies, especially in states that limit legal exposure with short statutes of limitations.

“The policies haven’t changed because they haven’t had to,” she said.

Opponents of the Hidden Predator Act argued it was unfair to organizations, particularly with cases that happened so long ago that there is no viable evidence.

M. Steven Heath, a lawyer who represented a church in a suit that sprang from a 2015 version of the law — Georgia's first attempt to deal with the issue — had to figure out how to defend against allegations of molestation from the 1950s to the 1980s. Anyone who knew what happened was either dead, gone or with a weakened memory, he testified at one of the Senate's hearings. The "enormous" cost of the defense fell to a congregation that had no responsibility for what occurred, he said, yet they had to pay the legal costs. Were it not for a benefactor, the church wouldn't have survived, he added. He sounded a common theme among critics of such legislation: "Many churches will simply collapse under the sheer weight of defense costs."

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Boy Scouts of America lobbied hard against the bill, and Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, the chief sponsor, said they found a sympathetic ear in the Senate.

The House version of HB 605 would have extended the statute of limitations to age 38 for victims, from the current 23. It also would have opened a one-year window when victims of any age could have sued. The Senate dialed the age limit back to 30 and deleted the one-year window. Other changes in their additional three pages of amendments made it harder to sue. Spencer described the Senate amendments as “absolute immunity for predators and entities.”

As the last day of the legislative session was about to begin Thursday morning, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle issued a statement that seemed to support the House version. It called on the senators in his chamber "to strengthen our laws and stand strongly against the worst elements of our society who victimize and exploit children." A spokesman said Cagle wanted to give survivors more than the Senate's legislative process had produced.

But later that night, just after 11 p.m., with less than an hour until the end of the session, Cagle told the Senate it was too late resolve the differences between the two bills. He blamed the House for moving too slowly to get the bill into a conference committee, where a handful of lawmakers from each chamber might have negotiated a compromise. Under Senate rules, such compromises must be completed by 10 p.m., and a motion to waive the rules failed.

Spencer acknowledges that it took too long to move the legislation through the House clerk’s office, where, in the 11th hour, bills pile up into a traffic jam of sorts. But he said House leaders supported him, and he blamed the Senate for holding so many hearings in the prior weeks that the bill’s fate had to be decided on the final, chaotic day of the session.

“The process stinks. This is why people hate politics,” he said. “This is why people hate their government.”

Though his outlook was grim on Friday morning, Spencer had achieved something that will someday shift power to victims. Three years ago, he pushed the first version of the Hidden Predator Act through the General Assembly. That law opened a one-year window against perpetrators (not entities) that, according to testimony at this year's hearings, produced 14 lawsuits before it expired. That law also established another scenario by which, theoretically, a victim of any age could sue both perpetrators and entities. The catch: the abuse must have occurred after July 1, 2015. Today, that won't empower anyone over 23, let alone anyone in their 40s, when research suggests people are most likely to begin recognizing how they were psychologically harmed by abuse.

But decades from now, when the child victims of today start coming forward, it could.

“It’s going to make a difference,” said Hamilton, “but it’s going to take time.”

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