Liability in Child Sexual Abuse Cases
Just last year, attorney Dan Dye of Pennsylvania released a 900-page report to a grand jury identifying more than 300 Catholic priests accused of child sexual abuse. In the wake of these decades worth of allegations stemming from the Catholic Church, lawmakers in Pennsylvania were forced to address the statute of limitations period in their state.
The statute of limitations sets the limit to how long a victim has to file a lawsuit. It exists to ensure evidence is still reliable and allows defendants to move forward with their lives without having to look over their shoulder, wondering if they’ll ever be hit with a lawsuit. Advocates for victims of child sexual abuse have long attempted to amend the statute of limitations period. They hope to raise the age and widen the “window of time” for when a victim can file a civil lawsuit against his or her abuser. However, as it currently stands, victims’ rights come second to the protection of large entities and organizations.
The Statute of Limitations in Georgia
In the state of Georgia, a victim generally has two years from the date of the incident to file a personal injury lawsuit (which is the category in which most sexual abuse lawsuits fit). Georgia’s current law often requires survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file claims before their 23rd birthday. This window became broader in 2015 when Georgia passed the Hidden Predator Act (also known as HB 17).
“This window became broader in 2015 when Georgia passed the Hidden Predator Act (also known as HB 17).”
The Hidden Predator Act provides a two-year window to bring civil cases that were previously banned under the old statute of limitations. As a result, many victims can bring charges against their abusers later in life and seek both justice and restitution. Unlike the old statute of limitations, HB 17 allows survivors to file a lawsuit from the date they discover the sexual abuse, which in some cases, may be decades after the incident due to repressed memories. The provision helps individuals who have involuntary suppressed childhood memories from traumatic experiences. Survivors often discover their abuse through therapy or when they have children who are the age they were when the abuse took place.
As it currently stands, survivors of child sexual abuse can file claims on or before their 23rd birthday if the abuse happened before July 1, 2015. If the abuse took place after this date, survivors have until their 23rd birthday or two years after connecting their injuries to the abuse to file a case.
The University of Georgia’s Child Sexual Abuse Study
The University of Georgia’s Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic (CEASE) was founded in 2016. It is the first of its kind in the country to provide free legal services to survivors of child sexual abuse. According to a recent study conducted by the clinic, Georgia’s current civil statute of limitations period is still ineffective in providing survivors of sexual abuse the justice they deserve.
Since the passing of the Hidden Predator Act in 2015, fifteen lawsuits were filed, six of which came from the CEASE clinic. One of the cases was voluntarily dismissed by the survivor, four were confidentially settled in mediation, and only one went before a judge in trial. Attorneys at the CEASE clinic believe mediation is sometimes the best method for survivors to confront their abusers and achieve the outcomes that would otherwise not take place in a trial proceeding.
In these civil proceedings, a survivor of child sexual abuse can confront his or her abuser and gain monetary compensation for damages. However, a judge in these proceedings cannot place a defendant on a sex offender registry, send them for psychological treatment, or force them to apologize. While the Hidden Predator Act has allowed a wider window of opportunity for survivors to file claims, attorneys at the CEASE clinic argue that the window could still be widened.
Entities Protected from Liability
While Georgia’s civil statute of limitations compares favorably to other states, it still limits survivors from filing claims against entities that could have prevented abuse or reported it. The CEASE clinic’s paper published in April of this year contends that even after the passing of HP 17, civil access to the judicial system remains difficult for victims as they can only sue individuals and not entities for their damages.
The Hidden Predator Act still protects schools, organizations, and other large entities whose leaders should have known about the abuse or had more measures in place to prevent it. Georgia is one of two states that protects entities from liability under its child sexual abuse window. Children, unfortunately, will always be at risk for sexual abuse. However, according to the CEASE clinic’s study, organizations and entities can and do decrease that likelihood if they put proper policies and procedures in place to prevent and report sexual abuse as soon as it takes place.
Failure to report child sexual abuse within an organization can result in a misdemeanor charge, however, Georgia’s law provides immunity for individuals who report abuse in good faith. Unfortunately, as seen in cases such as the Boy Scouts of America or the Catholic Church scandal, large entities that have prior knowledge of child sexual abuse under their care don’t always act in favor of protecting the victim, but rather, the institution. They don’t always put adequate procedures in place to protect children, they fail to report incidents of sexual abuse within their organization, and most times, turn a blind eye to the issue to save their reputation.
Reforming Georgia’s Sexual Abuse Law
Child sexual abuse is now an overwhelming public health concern, affecting one in every ten children in the United States. The effects are not only physical, but also mental and emotional, and they oftentimes follow the victim well into adulthood.
While the Hidden Predator Act of 2015 was a huge step forward towards victim’s rights, it still has room to grow. Advocates for child sexual abuse survivors at the CEASE clinic continue to challenge and press state lawmakers to extend the statute of limitations for civil claims. This study and hopefully more conversations on the topic will help protect children and hold those individuals and entities responsible and accountable for their actions.