ATLANTA (AP) — As Georgia’s legislative session ended, lawmakers closed the door on a bill that would have expanded the rights of survivors of childhood sexual abuse to sue their alleged abusers.
The Hidden Predator Act of 2018 would have expanded on a law passed in 2015. Different versions of the legislation had passed the House and Senate, but the two chambers of the Georgia General Assembly failed to agree on a compromise before this year’s legislative session ended shortly after midnight Friday morning.
State law says victims must file lawsuits seeking damages before they turn 23. The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Jason Spencer, sought to extend that by 15 years to age 38. He also wanted to open a one-year window during which victims older than that could sue their alleged abusers. And he wanted to allow lawsuits against organizations accused of knowing about or covering up abuse.
Spencer said the Senate gutted the bill. It extended the age for filing lawsuits to 30, rather than 38. It also eliminated the one year window for older victims and toughened the requirements for suing organizations.
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“The Senate has left victims behind and they continue to make Georgia a predator-friendly state,” Spencer said Friday, saying he was very disappointed that a strong version of the bill failed to pass.
Spencer also blamed opposition from powerful special interest groups, including the Georgia Catholic Conference and the Boy Scouts of America. Neither organization responded to messages Friday seeking comment, but outgoing phone messages said both were closed for the Good Friday holiday.
Opponents of the Georgia legislation and similar bills around the country have said they could lead to a flood of lawsuits, false claims and ruined reputations.
The 2015 law opened a two-year window, which went into effect July 1 that year and expired last summer, during which victims older than 23 could sue their alleged abusers. It also provided a “discovery rule” that allows any victim of childhood sexual abuse suffered after July 1, 2015, to pursue civil action after age 23 if the lawsuit is brought within two years from the date when the victim knew or had reason to know of the abuse.
Fourteen lawsuits that otherwise would have been barred because it was too late were filed during the two-year window opened by the 2015 law, a statistic that completely discredits opponents’ fears of a flood of litigation, supporters of the law argued.
Georgia is among the worst states in the country for providing recourse for victims of childhood sex abuse, said Marci Hamilton, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and CEO of Child USA who tracks the issue. Only Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi and New York are worse, she said, because they don’t have a discovery rule.
But Hamilton says she’s optimistic that every state will eventually get to the point where survivors of childhood sexual abuse have all the rights they need to seek justice from their alleged abusers. It can take several tries for states to get it right, she said.
“A lot of states have had to go back several times,” she said. “I don’t view this as the end of the road at all.”