ATLANTA – Victims of child sexual abuse will have more time to pursue legal action against their abuser and, in some cases, the institutions that failed to protect them as children, under a bill that awaits state lawmakers.

The proposal, sponsored by Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, seeks to build on a 2015 measure that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations and allowed older victims to come forward and take their abuser to civil court.

State law gives victims until they 23 years old to file a civil lawsuit. That age cut-off was suspended for two years, during which time 13 cases were filed all across the state, Spencer said. 

But Spencer said those cases have revealed a major flaw in the 2015 bill, known as the Hidden Predator Act: These older victims could not go after the institutions that may have covered up the abuse.

“We stopped short two years ago,” Spencer said in an interview. “We have to do better because if you don’t hold the enablers accountable, we as a state are continuing to protect child sexual predators.”

Some religious and business groups quietly worked to stymie past attempts to let victims take action against the churches, clubs, schools or other organizations that may have shielded an abuser, Spencer said.

He said he is preparing for that kind of opposition again in January, when lawmakers return to the Gold Dome. Spencer held a press conference this week at the state Capitol to discuss his bill. 

The south Georgia lawmaker wants to recreate the two-year window for older victims – and this time allow them to take institutions to court. 

“Enough is enough,” Spencer said. “If we don’t start hitting these people in the pocketbook, these behaviors are not going to change and real child protection is not going to happen.”

His proposal would also specifically target groups who knowingly turn a blind eye to human trafficking involving child sex abuse. It would also empower Georgia’s attorney general to pursue civil action in cases that represent a public threat.

Under the proposal, victims would also permanently have until the age of 38 to take their abuser, along with any group that may have shielded that individual, to court.

“People aren’t going to be able to come out and say before the age of 23, ‘This happened to me and here’s my harm and I know exactly why the harm happened and I’m ready to file a lawsuit,’” said Emma Hetherington, director of the Wilbanks CEASE Clinic.

“It’s just not going to happen,” she added. “It’s scientifically and psychologically an impossibility.”

The CEASE Clinic, which stands for Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation, was created at the University of Georgia as a result of the 2015 law. The clinic filed six claims under the law, working on a pro bono basis.

Hetherington said that there were organizations that possibly could have been implicated in some way in three of the clinic’s cases. Not being able to take action against organizations such as these sends a chilling message, she said.

“You can go sue the perpetrators but at the end of the day, there are all these other people out there who could have prevented this and could have helped this children and they didn’t,” Hetherington said. “And we’re just letting them get away scot-free.”

Jill Nolin covers the Georgia Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jnolin@cnhi.com.

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