ATLANTA – State lawmakers are mulling whether to broadly expand the statute of limitations in Georgia for people to sue who were sexually abused as children by members of businesses and nonprofit groups like the Catholic Church or Boy Scouts of America.
Since 2015, victims in Georgia have been able to sue their abusers and organizations that covered up the abuse before they turn 23 years old or within two years after those victims realized what they suffered was in fact abuse.
Victim advocates have praised that statute-of-limitation window as a tool for securing justice for people who repressed memories of their abuse for decades. But they argue Georgia law is still too limiting.
House Bill 479, dubbed the “Hidden Predator Act,” would expand the age range and timeframe for many more adults in Georgia to file lawsuits for sexual abuse they suffered as children.
Supporters say the changes represent a much-needed legal show of support for victims, while opponents warn it could unleash a wave of litigation capable of crippling social-benefit groups like schools and churches.
Sponsored by Rep. Heath Clark, R-Warner Robins, the bill would let anyone between the ages of 23 and 52 file suit before July 1 of this year if they were abused as children. It would also extend the time people have to file suit from two years to four years after they realized they were abused.
That would give people suffering from repressed memories and deep trauma more time to understand the effects of abuse and decide whether to seek litigation as adults, said Emma Hetherington, a University of Georgia assistant clinical professor who runs the school’s Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic.
“It’s very akin to a veteran in combat who suffered post-traumatic stress disorder,” Hetherington said at a House Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday.
Most contentiously, the bill would allow for a one-year window starting this July for victims of any age to sue their alleged child abusers for abuse that happened at any time.
The one-year window would also apply to lawsuits filed against employer groups that harbored an abuser or buried evidence of the abuse – but only for alleged abuse that happened since July 1, 1973.
Other states like New York have recently passed laws giving victims a limited window to sue for cases dating back decades ago. Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, said Wednesday that Georgia should follow their lead.
“We’ve got to get in line,” she said. “We are preventing victims from getting in that line without passing this bill.”
But attorneys concerned about the impacts of more lawsuits on Georgia argue much of the bill’s language is too broad and could prompt a rush to the courts.
Mark Behrens, a Washington, D.C.-based corporate defense attorney representing the American Tort Reform Association, highlighted news reports stating the enactment of New York’s statute-of-limitations law change inspired hundreds of lawsuits to be filed in a single day.
“The financial impacts are going to be enormous in your state,” Behrens said Wednesday.
The Catholic Church especially faces exposure to lawsuits for abuse that occurred decades ago, during a time when church officials had a different policy for disciplining abusive priests than they do now, said Frank Mulcahy, executive director of the Georgia Catholic Conference.
He worried that policy, which involved sending abusive priests to “treatment” rather than alerting law enforcement, could draw churches into legal jeopardy due to a provision in the bill allowing victims to sue organizations for “concealing (or) attempting to conceal” evidence of priest abuse.
“We know today it’s virtually impossible to cure a pedophilia person. But we didn’t know that at the time,” Mulcahy said.
“We would be involved in concealing that under this definition,” he added, “even though what we did was to try to help the person and the church as well.”
House lawmakers on the committee did not vote on Clark’s bill Wednesday. It is expected to go through some changes before returning for a committee vote in the coming days.