Chairman Jeff Stone addresses changes to House Bill 605 during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at the Coverdell Legislative Office Building in Atlanta, Georgia, on Thursday, March 22, 2018. (REANN HUBER/REANN.HUBER@AJC.COM)
Photo: Reann Huber
Photo: Reann Huber

Sponsor: Senate’s changes wreck law to allow child-sex lawsuits

It was supposed to open the courts to adults who say they were sexually abused decades ago, but Georgia’s Hidden Predator Act has been so heavily amended that its author says it would be of no use to the victims he knows.

“I will now have to tell the five men in my district that I tried to help them, but I couldn’t,” Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, said Thursday after a Senate committee voted unanimously to add several pages of amendments that limit who can sue.

House Bill 605 faced opposition from two powerful institutions that have been accused of systematically covering up child sexual abuse: the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. It passed the House of Representatives 170-0 last month with language that would have opened the door wide to lawsuits by adults of any age. But the Senate Judiciary Committee, meeting in private, added several pages of amendments that effectively shield such organizations from most liability over past inaction.

“We tried to strike a balance for victims’ rights and the rights of defendants, particularly entities, to due process,” said the committee chairman, Sen. Jesse Stone, R-Waynesboro.

“Vehicle,” the Phrase of the Week by James Salzer. Video by Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Boy Scouts of America had worked quietly behind the scenes when the bill was in the House. When it reached the Senate, they openly opposed it, saying the House version would have invited costly lawsuits over decades-old allegations.

Witnesses move or die and memories fade, Edward Lindsey, a lobbyist for the Boy Scouts, testified last week. “Time ruins evidence.”

In the audience were people who say they were abused as children. They and plaintiffs’ attorneys have pushed to extend the statute of limitations for lawsuits, currently age 23. The Georgia Baptist Mission Board and Georgia Right to Life have supported the House version of the bill, which would have extended the statute of limitations to age 38 while also expanding the scenarios in which organizations could be sued for allowing abuse to occur and concealing it afterward.

The Senate bill extends the statute of limitations to age 30 but limits lawsuits against organizations. Stone called the House’s one-year window for victims of any age to sue them an “open season, so to speak.”

Proponents of including deep-pocketed organizations as defendants say it’s the only way to effect change on a large scale. Victims and perpetrators aren’t typically wealthy, and lawyers are more likely to take a case if there’s a chance for a significant payout.

If the Senate version of the bill were to become law, self-proclaimed victims under age 31 could sue organizations that intentionally concealed abuse, but older would-be plaintiffs would have to sue within a year of learning about such concealment, and the abuse would have to have happened within a dozen years.

This would wipe out cases that were based on a 2015 version of the Hidden Predator Act that Spencer was trying to update. Parts of the act that allowed lawsuits against organizations have expired.

“I think it’s going to create so many hurdles for victims,” Emma Hetherington, an assistant clinical professor of law at the University of Georgia, said of the amendments. Hetherington, who directs the UGA College of Law’s Wilbanks CEASE Clinic, which handles lawsuits for victims of child sexual abuse for free, said some of the amended language is so confusing it could lead to “a ton” of court appeals if this become law.

The Senate passed the bill after a backroom meeting the evening before, when members of the public were left unaware, awaiting the scheduled hearing in the official chambers.

Around 7:30 p.m., several hours after the meeting was supposed to have started, the senators sent committee secretary, Sen. Blake Tillery, R-Vidalia, to inform the public. The senators had been unable to reach a consensus on amendments, he told the confused crowd.

“I apologize,” he said.

Observers were not the only ones left out of the real meeting: the GOP-led committee also didn’t invite Democratic members, who’d been waiting for the meeting to start in the official room along with everyone else.

“I was very disappointed that the Republican members of the committee met for such an extended period without giving the Democratic members and the crowd in the room any notice or information,” Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, said later that night.

Even so, she and the other Democrats on the committee went along with the Republicans’ amendments Thursday.

The ire of one supporter of the House version of the bill, plaintiff’s lawyer Esther Panitch, was focused on committee vice chairman Bill Cowsert. The Republican senator from Athens is a lawyer, and his firm represented a church that had been accused of covering up abuse involving the Boy Scouts. One of Cowsert’s partners even testified against the bill without identifying his affiliation with Cowsert.

Panitch has said Cowsert has a conflict of interest (she has said others on the committee affiliated with the Boy Scouts do, as well). She also said she has witnesses who overheard Cowsert saying after one testy hearing that he “would not be lectured by that Jew.” (Panitch had referred to her religion while testifying.)

Such a derogatory remark is “really disheartening,” Panitch told several journalists after Thursday’s hearing. Then, added: “it’s disgusting.” She accused him of making a “non-apology apology” after he sent her an email saying that if he referred to her as “the Jewish lady, it was only because I did not recall your name and because you referred to your faith in your testimony.”

Cowsert confirmed he sent that email and added that he didn’t recall Panitch’s name and referred to her “in the way she self-identified during her testimony.”

“My words were not meant to be derogatory in any way,” he said.

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