ATLANTA - A bill Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law Tuesday could open some courthouse doors for those who say they are victims of childhood sexual assault.
Mothers from a small town in Toombs County told Channel 2’s Rachel Stockman the new law would give them the chance to seek justice for their sons against a prominent member of their community in court.
“I didn’t seek justice in the beginning for my son,” said mother Nancy Stanley.
“He had gone through a lot of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, sexual pornography -- that’s why he was at the place that he was to try and get help with overcoming these addictions,” Stanley explained to Stockman.
Stanley’s son told her what he said a member of their church did to him as a child, but she didn’t call the police, just the church.
“They offered to meet with the man that was the accused, that he was going to get some counseling and we’d just all be happy every after,” Stanley said. “But that didn’t happen and the man didn’t get the counseling.”
Right now, alleged victims like these have no way to access the court system.
Victims of child sex abuse who say the abuse happened prior to 2012 are barred from seeking prosecution against their alleged predators if they are over 23, except in a small number of cases where there is DNA evidence.
This loophole allows many accused predators to escape charges, according to experts.
Rep. Jason Spencer, the sponsor of HB 17, told Stockman that holding businesses and nonprofits that protect accused child abusers accountable was part of the framework for HB 17.
“We were not expecting and surprised by the fierce opposition we had against the [previous] bill,” Spencer said. “We knew we were going to get the same opponents again.”
Spencer told Stockman that the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, various insurance lobbyists and even religious organizations worked backdoor channels at the state capitol to pressure lawmakers to strip language holding entities accountable from the bill.
“We need to shed more light on the transparency of this process and allow the public to know who is actually opposing good public policy and they are not being open about their position,” Spencer said. “I think it’s important, as an elected official, that I sit in this seat and I let people know who is opposing good public policy.”
Now that the bill has been signed into law by Deal, a two-year window starting July 1 would open to allow alleged victims to seek justice in the civil courts against their attacker.
After that window, the civil statute will allow a victim to seek civil action within two years of discovering harm done by their abuser in addition to the original statute. For example, if a person seeking treatment for drug addiction or mental health problems “discovers” childhood sexual abuse was the cause, that individual could seek civil action.
“Whether its alcoholism or drug addiction, sex addiction or just ordinary depression, PTSD is very common amongst these survivors,” Hamilton said. “All of these can gang up on a victim, and they are just trying to cope day to day.”
Stockman and members of Channel 2’s investigative team spent months attending public hearings on HB 17. They spotted lobbyists from the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, the insurance industry and even the executive director of the Georgia Catholic Conference.
At a later hearing Stockman spotted Frank Mulcahy, chair of the Georgia Catholic Conference. After the meeting she asked Mulcahy about the church’s interest in the bill.
“Are you supporting this bill?” Stockman asked Mulcahy.
“We haven’t taken a position on it,” Mulcahy responded.
“We saw last year in your legislative update you were against a bill, you were hoping for the demise of a bill,” Stockman said.
“No, that’s not true,” Mulcahy said. “I don’t remember seeing that on the website.”
According to a 2014 memo on their website, the Georgia Catholic Conference told members they were “delighted with the demise” of a similar bill that failed last year, which would have extended the civil statute of limitations.
Channel 2 asked Lemke, Mulcahy and Hamling if they would like to offer any additional comment after HB 17 ultimately passed. The Georgia Chamber of Commerce was the only group to respond, issuing this statement:
"The Georgia Chamber agrees that protecting victims while holding predators accountable for their actions is vitally important to our state. The business community appreciates the General Assembly's commitment to this issue, and hopes the measures added to House Bill 17 will prevent frivolous lawsuits against innocent businesses, churches, and non-profits operating in good faith."
“The insurance industry and the Catholic bishops go the furthest, they invest the most to try and kill these bills,” Hamilton said of her experience in other states with these types of bills.
Hamilton said at least a dozen states have changed their child sexual abuse laws dramatically in the last five years, and nearly 25 in the past 15 years.
When California passed a similar bill, around 1,000 lawsuits were filed, most against the Catholic Church, with settlements for victims of abuse costing more than $1 billion, according to local reports.
“If you understand what you are going to accomplish by passing this law, you wouldn't try to block it,” Hamilton said. “I’ve never seen a circumstance where you educated people and they didn't start doing the right thing.”
After many changes in the Georgia House, Senate and Committee meetings, HB 17 now requires an alleged victim to prove “preponderance of evidence” against an entity before a civil action can be hired. It’s a tough burden in the civil courts.
“I never in a million years anticipated such a huge battle for child rape victims,” said Angela Williams, child sexual abuse survivor and founder of Voice Today. “I think there was such great concern over liability and that became more important than someone’s life”
But many said this version is but a shadow of the piece of legislation Spencer presented at the beginning of the year.
“It was gutted, actually,” Williams said.
“We’ve got to change this, it’s just incontestable,” Nancy Stanley told Stockman. “Anyone that would put money above children’s lives and these heinous acts that are being done to them, it’s just despicable.”