Every rational adult who understands anything about the dynamics of sexual abuse — especially child sexual abuse — knows why the legal statute of limitations principles governing other kinds of crimes generally don’t, and shouldn’t, apply the same ways to sexual abusers of children.
But what about the accountability of powerful and/or otherwise venerable and “respectable” organizations that enable, protect or cover for such perpetrators — or whose employees, associates and even executives have done so?
It’s a question the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, to name one high-profile example, has had to deal with both legally and doctrinally. But as issues in Georgia — and almost everywhere else — have shown (not that we shouldn’t already have known), the question is relevant in countless realms other than Catholicism, including businesses, nonprofits and other faith organizations.
State Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, was principal sponsor of a bill two years ago that extended the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse to file civil actions against the alleged perpetrators. That law, the Hidden Predator Act, was also supposed to extend a reasonable degree of culpability to organizations in which such actions, or a past pattern of such actions, was known or should have been known. But so far, according to a Tuesday story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, that part of the law has not delivered.
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“What these cases have proven,” Spencer told the AJC, “is that we stopped short. It’s our duty to balance the scales of justice for victims.”
Among the most recent of such cases, the newspaper reported, a Cobb County court dismissed a civil suit against the Boy Scouts and a Gainesville church by a man alleging he was raped when he was 14 by a scoutmaster for a church-sponsored troop. According to the AJC, the scoutmaster had told the pastor of the church he had molested two boys in the past, and the Scouts acknowledged knowing of multiple prior accusations of sexual abuse against the man.
But the court ruled that both the Scouts and the church were protected by the statute of limitations, even if the abuser himself was not, because the plaintiff did not prove that those institutions prevented him from seeking legal recourse.
Of course, if the plaintiff had no way of knowing they were well aware of his molester’s record, he would have no way of knowing legal action was possible.
“We have evidence there was knowledge of the abuse for decades, and collusion to keep it quiet,” said Esther Panitch, attorney for that plaintiff and three others who sued the same former scoutmaster.
Spencer plans to introduce a bill to close the statute of limitations loophole for enabling organizations. But he told the Journal-Constitution that powerful lobbies, including some representing the Catholic Church and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce, are resisting tougher standards.
Still, Spencer said, “I think we can convince them that not holding entities accountable is not serving the cause of justice.”