Abused as children, victims may get more time to sue

3:00 p.m Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2017 Local
As lawmakers, attorneys and sex abuse victims look on, state Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine) speaks during a press conference Wednesday at the Georgia Capitol. ALAN JUDD/ajudd@ajc.com

Christopher Gaba thought he was the only one.

He could not imagine that others who attended the Darlington School in Rome, Georgia, also had been sexually abused. He certainly had no idea that others had accused the same teacher who molested him.

So he said nothing. The statute of limitations for a civil case passed years ago. But this summer, other Darlington alumni went public with allegations of decades-old abuse. “After more than 30 years,” Gaba said, “I realized I wasn’t alone.”

Gaba exemplifies the need for new laws governing civil cases by adults who were abused as children, state legislators and attorneys said at a news conference Wednesday in the Georgia Capitol.

Current laws “protect child predators and deny justice to abuse survivors,” said state Rep. Jason Spencer (R-Woodbine). Spencer is sponsoring House Bill 605, which would allow victims to sue not only abusers but also institutions that sheltered them.

Spencer led the effort to pass the Hidden Predator Act of 2015, which created a two-year window for victims to sue their abusers even if the statute of limitations had passed. Normally, adults must sue over childhood abuse by age 23.

Thirteen cases were filed under the Hidden Predator Act before it expired June 30.

The insurance industry, the Catholic Church and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce all exerted influence behind the scenes that “undermined” the 2015 bill, Spencer said Wednesday. He said he got the bill through the General Assembly only after killing provisions that would have allowed suits against schools, churches, private businesses and other institutions.

“I was unaware of how stiff the opposition was,” Spencer said. “The opposition worked the back channels of the legislative process. That is unacceptable with this issue.”

The chamber recently denied that it lobbied against the 2015 bill.

At the news conference, where Spencer’s new bill received bipartisan support, legislators, lawyers, victims and advocates said people who experience sexual abuse in childhood often don’t comprehend or acknowledge what happened until well into adulthood.

“There is no magic age,” said Emma Hetherington, director of the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic at the University of Georgia Law School.

Lequita Jackson of Columbus said her pastor first molested her in 2002, when she was 15. The abuse went on until 2009, she said.

“He was a sexual predator who needed to be stopped,” Jackson said. When she learned other young women had said the pastor also molested them, she filed a lawsuit just before the Hidden Predator Act expired. A few weeks later, her case would have been barred.

But, she said, “there are countless other adult survivors in Georgia who were not ready or able” to sue by the deadline.

Gaba and eight other former Darlington students, along with the estate of another, sued the school and former teacher Roger Stifflemire in late June. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Darlington administrators did nothing after at least two students and the mother of a third complained about Stifflemire’s misconduct in the 1970s and 1980s.

Stifflemire, now 76 and retired in Alabama, has not responded to numerous interview requests. Neither he nor Darlington has filed a response to the lawsuit.

Gaba said he was a high school freshman when Stifflemire, an English teacher who lived in a Darlington dorm, pressured him to visit his apartment in the spring of 1978. Gaba said he never reported the abuse to school officials and assumed for years he was the only victim.

He came forward after Darlington distributed a letter in late May seeking information about possible sexual abuse. The letter suggested the school already had concluded no abuse had occurred, but Gaba said he knew Darlington “was not telling the whole story.”

“There was a decades-long cover-up to protect the school and the administration,” Gaba said Wednesday.

Almost 20 former Darlington students now allege they were molested in the 1970s and 1980s, said Darren Penn, one of the lawyers representing Gaba and other alumni. Stifflemire taught at Darlington for 20 years and, Penn said, apparently molested “countless children” despite multiple reports to school officials.

“The only way to protect children,” Gaba said at the news conference, “is for the individuals and the institutions to be held accountable.”

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