Last summer the Georgia legislature passed House Bill 17, extending the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse.
It was a huge moment for the more than 2 million adult victims in Georgia who report being sexually abused during their childhood. The bill essentially cleared the way for them to have their day in civil court by opening a two-year retroactive window for claims of abuse at any age, no matter how long ago the abuse happened.
The law allows victims who were shut out in the past by Georgia’s short statute of limitations to file claims between July 1, 2015, and July 1, 2017. It also gives victims up to two years from the time their abuse is disclosed and documented by medical or psychological evidence in which to sue their accused attackers.
You would think that would make Justin Conway, 38, a satisified man. He’d finally stood up to the karate coach who he said sexually abused him beginning at age 13 and then fought hard to see “The Hidden Predator” Bill signed into law.
But it proved bittersweet for Conway. One moment he felt welcome relief that Warren Craig Peeples, the man he alleges left him a damaged man from years of sexual abuse, might finally get his due in civil court. And the next, deep sorrow that Peeples will never face criminal charges because the statute of limitations had expired.
If he had it to do over again, would he tell?
“One thousand percent yes,” Conway said. “As a father I had no choice. Even if this law and this process doesn’t help anybody else, it will have helped me become the man that I need to be. There is no greater calling than to advocate for the protection of children’s innocence. If nobody stands up, nothing will ever change.”
Conway first came forward with his story in the summer of 2013. From age 6, he began training at Pak’s Karate in Camden County, where Peeples was the Olympic hopeful’s coach. For years, Conway says, he felt ashamed and did not speak of the alleged abuse.
“I had always thought it was just me, that it was my fault,” Conway said. “The moment that I came to know that I was not the only one, I reported it to law enforcement.”
In a March 2014 letter to a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent, Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson said she had sufficient evidence to prosecute Peeples for “multiple acts of sodomy, aggravated sodomy, child molestation, aggravated child molestation and sexual battery” allegedly perpetrated upon students at Pak’s Karate, “beginning as early as 1988 and continuing up until 2001.”
But the state was barred from proceeding with criminal charges because the statute of limitations had expired.
The statute of limitations also had expired for a civil case, but Conway decided to do something about that.
For the next two years, he fought alongside Voice Today, the Marietta-based nonprofit that advocates for child sex abuse victims, and state Rep. Jason Spencer to get the law changed. He testified at House and Senate hearings, served on a task force for the bill, made media appearances and rallied support from around the state.
The bill became law on July 1. In August, Conway, along with six other alleged victims, filed the first suit under the new law. It is now in the discovery phase.
“That was the only option we had to face the perpetrator in the court of law,” Conway said.
For his contribution in passing the bill, Conway will receive the Voice of Courage Award at the third annual Legacy Ball benefiting Voice Today on March 5.
“It’s very difficult for a man to disclose that they were sexually abused as a child,” said Angela Williams, founder of Voice Today. “He showed great courage in stepping out and fighting arm-in-arm with us on behalf of other victims to get the civil statute of limitations extended. He’s a great role model for other men who have been sexually abused.”
Peeples, who continues to run the karate studio, has steadfastly denied the allegations. He refused to comment other than to say, “I don’t know why anyone would honor someone who is an habitual liar. Call my attorney.”
The Legacy Ball will be hosted by former University of Georgia Football Coach Vince Dooley and his wife Barbara.
An estimated one in 10 children will be the victim of sexual abuse before the age of 18. There are an estimated 42 million survivors of child sexual abuse in America today
When Barbara Dooley learned those statistics, she was startled.
“I absolutely had no clue how many young men and women had been abused and what it does to them,” Dooley said.
She and her husband signed on to host the Legacy Ball after they met Williams and learned about Voice Today.
“When you hear the stories you can’t help but jump right into action,” Dooley said. “Hopefully others will join us. Come to the Legacy Ball. We need you.”
2016 Legacy Ball. 7 p.m. March 5. $130 Georgia Aquarium, 225 Baker St NW, Atlanta, GA 30313. 678-578-4888. www.voicetoday.org/legacyball