WTOC Investigates: Georgia abuse laws

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - The state of Georgia has what many consider one of the most pedophile-friendly sets of laws in the nation. Here's why.

If a victim of child sexual assault has repressed memories of that assault much later in life, they only have until the age of 23 to sue for damages - but only the perpetrator, not the organization that may have known, allowed, or even hid the crimes. Many other states have no statute of limitations on this crime.

Changing our status from 'victim hostile' to 'victim-friendly' is wrapped up in a proposed bill written and sponsored by one of our own local state lawmakers. That bill is also being opposed by at least two of the most powerful lobbies in the state of Georgia.

Georgia Republican representative, Jason Spencer, has poured his heart and soul into a proposed bill that could pull the Peach State out of the dark ages when it comes to holding individuals and institutions accountable for the destruction of human lives.

From the churches to the campsites to the gymnasiums of this state and others, the pedophile has found haven in laws that are too weak to fight against their demented behaviors or to fight for their dozens of victims.

"We have a duty as members of the General Assembly to right this wrong," Rep. Spencer said. "If we let that go uncovered and not addressed, we are not being ethical, we are not being moral, and we're not upholding to the things that we escribe to be in that General Assembly."

Spencer didn't have to look too far to find states that get it - that put victims ahead of offenders and their protectors.

In Georgia, a child sex assault victim must file their civil case against his or her abuser before they reach the age of 23, understanding full well 90 percent of victims repress memories of their abuse until they are nearly 40. Even at age 23, they cannot sue an organization even if it knew, allowed, or hid the abuser's crimes.

Spencer's bill bumps statute of limitations to age 38, and more importantly, gives the victim a four-year window at any age to sue the organization if it's clear it should have known the abuse was going on.

Most states do much more. South Carolina allows the person and entity to face civil action up to three years after the victim realizes the abuse took place - at any age. Kentucky gives the victim five years after the discovery of abuse at any age. In Maine, civil or criminal action can be taken at any time and any age. Illinois allows the victim to file a lawsuit for 10 years after discovering the abuse. Massachusetts lets the victim file for 35 years after the crimes or seven years after they discover the harmful abuse. And the list goes on.

Spencer says Georgia schools, churches, and gyms become the recipient of what these other states force our way.

"What that means is that we are predator-friendly, and so Georgia is attracting predators to our state," Rep. Spencer said.

Remember the man who was the victim of multiple child sexual assaults by a then-priest of the Catholic Diocese of Savannah? It wasn't just the church that protected the priest and hid the abuse. It was Georgia law that made sure Chris Templeton had no case here.

"It was really sad to see how Georgia state law was. It showed how ignorant we really are, how behind the times we really are. I mean, it's sad. It was really sad," Templeton said.

Chris' abuser made the mistake of abusing him in South Carolina as well. That's where his case led to a $4.5 million settlement against the Diocese. Chris says abusers tend to be broke. Those protecting them are the ones with something to protect.

"As long as they're not held responsible, the culture is not going to change. Since my case, nothing's changed," he said.

"Well, we have a lot of special interest groups that are opposing the bill," said Savannah attorney, Brian Cornwell.

Cornwell is part of the same legal team that opened the flood gates on USA Gymnastics, including former team doctor Larry Nassar. Like USAG, there is a powerful lobbying that wants this new Georgia bill dead on arrival.

"We've got churches, we've got the Boy Scouts, Faith and Freedom Coalition, we've got several...State Chamber of Commerce," Cornwell said. "The Chamber of Commerce is dead set on this bill because they don't want members to get sued."

WTOC spent a week attempting to contact the Boy Scouts of America, the Georgia Catholic Conference, the National Federation of Independent Business, and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. None of them called us back.

Only the Boy Scouts offered a statement, making it clear they are not happy with parts of the bill, saying, '...because it does not strengthen efforts that experts agree can help keep children safe and includes provisions that would hinder the ability of youth-serving organizations to protect the children they serve.'

You can bet, these House Subcommittee members know the lobbying effort against the measure has been present the whole way.

"I can't tell you the people that come to me in the hall and say, 'I can't stand up and say it. I can't expose my organization in the eye of the public,' because they don't want to be against this. They want to be for it," said Rep. Ed Setzler (R), Acworth.

The exposure may be too great.

"This should be a bill about protecting the youth of Georgia and giving victims an opportunity to be heard when organizations knowingly cover up issues of sexual misconduct by either volunteers or employees," Cornwell said.

Representative Spencer's bill has been getting watered down over the last few days. The new 'Hidden Predator Act of 2018' bumps the statute of limitation to age 38 instead of 23, moving forward only. So, it would apply to cases involving our children's' children.

There is also a one-year window of opportunity for current alleged victims to sue the organizations that may have protected the abuser or hid the abuse, but the standards of proof are raised to the point that it will make it very difficult for any victim to present a successful case.

Finally, this bill has yet to get an audience on the House floor, and if some of the organizations mentioned earlier have their way, it never will. It may be to have pressure from voters like you that makes the difference. Without action, the bill dies on Wednesday.

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