SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - It's fair to say that March Madness can apply to many surprises that happen in the spring. Take the effort to protect Georgia's children from sexual predators and the organizations that hide their terrible acts.
Representative Jason Spencer wrote and sponsored a bill that would have brought Georgia off the bottom of the list of states whose laws put our children at risk. As the Georgia Legislative session winds down this spring, the Hidden Predator Act of 2018 might not be worth the paper it's written on - because all of us may have once again underestimated the power of lobbyists and money.
Bowing to pressure from the Boy Scouts of America, the Catholic Church, the insurance industry, and even the state Chamber of Commerce, the sponsor of the Hidden Predator Act of 2018 will tell you that state Senators didn't water the bill down. They drowned it.
"The public needs to engage," said Jason Spencer, R, District 180. "The public needs to wake up to this issue. The public needs to know that your government, whether you like it or not, is being controlled by well-financed special interests, and they need to engage."
As originally written, the bill would have given the victims of child sexual abuse the ability to pursue civil cases against their abusers through the age of 38. It would have also allowed those same victims a window of opportunity to sue the organizations that knew about, allowed, or hid the abuse. Most of these victims repress those memories until much later in life, so that window is critical - and most other states have it.
The House passed this version 170-0. Spencer says that just alerted special interest groups that they needed to pour their time and money into defeating it. Within a week, the Senate Judiciary Committee just passed its version, crippling the bill and pulling every tooth it ever had. Attorney Brian Cornwell doesn't have a single client that would benefit from this bill - but he has kids.
"If we recognize this is a problem, why aren't we doing something about it," we asked Cornwell?
"Special interest groups like the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts, the insurance industry, all of those industries that have powerful lobbies are lobbying against this bill," Cornwell said.
The Senate version, if it ever gets to the floor, has closed that window of opportunity for most victims to seek justice - but worse - the burden of proof on the victim was raised to the highest level.
"So, not only did they create a lot of barriers for us to even get into court; if you made it into court, they made it nearly impossible to hold an entity liable for actions that allowed predators access to children," Cornwell said.
For the last two decades, other states have been breaking down those same barriers. 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 at 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," he said.
Spencer isn't giving up just yet. There is a week left to the session and a bucket full of tricks left to try.
"I will be exploiting every parliamentary maneuver available to me to force the Senate to do the right thing," Spencer said.
Our efforts to reach members of the organizations lobbying against the bill have been met with silence, but their efforts to kill it have convinced many in the House and Senate they're sending this message to Jason Spencer.
"Well, I think that would be a travesty of epic proportions if we allow this bill to die on the floor because we cannot get past the special interests groups trying to kill it," Cornwell said. "We have to stand up for what's right in this state. We've got to stand up for the children in this state, and it matters that we stand on principle when it comes to issues when it comes to people who can't fight for themselves."
Representative Jason Spencer will do whatever he can to rebuild the Hidden Predator Act in the time he has left, but his message to voters out there stands.
In this age of #metoo and the USA Gymnastics sex assault trials, it's hard for him to believe there remains so much apathy toward the safety of our children, and so little resistance among lawmakers to the well-financed efforts of lobbyists.