It’s hard to come out — at least publicly — against measures meant to clamp down on child molesters.
A bill in the state House called the Hidden Predator Act would expand the age (to 38) that past victims of child sexual assault could sue for damages. Moreso, it would hold accountable organizations, businesses and even churches that were derelict in their duties and allowed kids to be abused.
For decades, organizations and institutions would quietly usher away the abuser so the sordid activity would not tarnish and shame those institutions’ honorable names.
“It’s a crime of secrecy,” Rep. Jason Spencer, the bill’s author, told me.
Spencer’s legislation would expand the ability of victims to face down their abusers years later. It would, in cases where the entities failed to act on reports of abuse, bring to light past wrongs and put these organizations on the hook for damages.
That’s the real issue here, of course. Money.
So those entities have worked in secrecy to thwart the bill, Spencer said, just as they did three years ago when a similar bill was watered down.
The Boy Scouts of America are fighting to gut the bill, said Spencer. Also, he said lobbyists for the Georgia Catholic Conference, the insurance industry and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce are working quietly to bottle up the legislation in committee, never to see the light of day.
“This is a rerun of three years ago; they’re working the back channels,” Spencer said, referring to his 2015 bill that had portions of the bill removed, the part that held entities responsible. “They know there’s a cultural shift and public opinion is against them.”
He knows that if his bill ever makes it to the floor, no legislator in his right mind will vote against it.
Ed Lindsey, a former legislator and connected Gold Dome deal maker, knows this. He is one of several lobbyists toiling for the Boy Scouts, an org that in recent decades has taken it on the chin. (Disclosure: My youngest is an Eagle Scout and had a wonderful run in a terrific organization.)
Spencer, a Republican from Southeast Georgia, says Lindsey and other lobbyists have told him “they don’t want any liability for past acts.”
Spencer argues that victims of abuse have suffered those costs — alcoholism, drugs, psychological issues, etc.
I called Lindsey, who has never been reticent with his opinion, but he passed me to the BSA headquarters.
In a fittingly obtuse statement the Scouts said, “We do not support it in its current form, however, because it does not strengthen efforts that experts agree can help keep children safe and includes provisions that would hinder the ability of youth-serving organizations to protect the children they serve.”
Darren Penn, a lawyer who has brought forward several abuse cases, said the attitude is, “We changed our ways years ago. Why are you digging up stuff from the past?”
Penn said a Catholic church lobbyist said in a hearing, “You’re going to take food out of the mouths that the church helps.”
The Catholic lobbyist did not return messages for comment.
Two powerful words inserted into bill
What also shows the touchiness of such an effort — and how it hits home — is that Lindsey is an active member of All Saints Episcopal Church, where, according to a bio, he ushers and teaches Sunday school.
At that same church is Rev. Tim Black, the associate rector for youth. He was allegedly abused as a young Boy Scout in Gainesville from 1979 to 1981. His father reported the abuse to the First Baptist Church in Gainesville. The church in turn asked the scout leader, Fleming Weaver, to move on. Four years later while working in another post with the Scouts, Weaver allegedly abused another boy.
Black, who has spoken about his ordeal in the past, declined to comment, suggesting I talk to his lawyer.
Esther Panitch, lawyer for four ex-Scouts, including the one molested in 1985, recently filed an amended lawsuit saying that the Scouts have long engaged in a conspiracy to shield volunteers they knew were predators.
Panitch was at a subcommittee hearing Wednesday where a couple words were inserted into the bill that could neuter the legislation.
‘Destroys the soul of a person’
Rep. Bert Reeves (R-Marietta) added that entities had to have “knowingly and willfully” concealed evidence to be successfully sued. Reeves, a former prosecutor, said abuse “destroys the soul of a person” and added that he is trying to institute a standard of evidence that is fair, not thwart the bill.
Panitch, however, told me the way it read meant “You have to prove it before you file” a suit. She said that evidence of such a conspiracy is often turned over in the discovery phase of a lawsuit, proof that bolsters a coverup occurred.
With a higher standard of proof to carry a suit, many cases would be dismissed before the victim could send out the first subpoena.
The problem in cases like this is you don’t know what you know until you know it.
And that, for the victims, is part of the problem they have suffered for years.
Later on, the committee amended the phrasing to “reckless disregard or conscious indifference.” It’s a better standard for the victims.
But it ain’t over.