Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory opposes House Bill 605, as do the Boy Scouts of America.

GOP senators exclude Democrats, public, from meeting about weakening legislation for child sex abuse victims

When a Georgia Senate committee tried unsuccessfully to resolve differences over  child sexual abuse legislation Wednesday, they excluded some key players: fellow members who happen to be Democrats.

The GOP-led Senate Judiciary Committee met behind closed doors after the official committee hearing was scheduled to begin at 4 p.m., leaving a roomful of observers and several committee members who aren’t Republicans to wonder what was going on.

Finally, around 7:30 p.m., the secretary of the committee, Sen. Blake Tillery, entered the room and addressed the crowd. The Republican from Vidalia, a town riled by a sex abuse lawsuit involving members of a church, looked sheepish as he delivered a confusing message to a confused crowd: the meeting that everyone was waiting to watch would not be occurring because it already sort of had, just not where anyone present could see it. And the senators who’d been meeting in private had been unable to come to any consensus.

“I apologize,” he said.

The meeting, which should have started a couple hours late anyway due to an extended Senate floor session, instead started close to four hours late. Tillery officially opened the meeting so he could immediately adjourn it. So at least it did happen, officially.

The hearing was supposed to be for two controversial bills: House Bill 673 involving new limits on cellphone use by drivers and House Bill 605, known as the Hidden Predator Act, which would extend the statute of limitations for adults to file lawsuits over sexual abuse they say they endured when they were children.

Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, who’d been loitering in the hearing room with the public, said Tillery told her the back-room meeting had focused entirely on the sex abuse bill and that the senators hadn’t had time to discuss the cellphone bill.

“I was very disappointed that the Republican members of the committee met for such an extended period without giving the Democratic members and the crowd in the room any notice or information,” Parent told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The senators were considering amendments to the bill that would reduce what it offers to victims compared to the version that passed the House of Representatives 170-0 a few weeks ago. Lawmakers in the House extended the age that victims could sue to 38 from the current 23. The Senate would cut that to 33, while introducing other changes that make it harder to sue organizations involved in a cover-up.

“I think it’s going to create so many hurdles for victims,” Emma Hetherington, an assistant clinical professor of law at the University of Georgia said of the amendments. Multiple pages were added and in some cases the intent of the added passages was unclear, said Hetherington, who directs the UGA College of Law’s Wilbanks CEASE Clinic, which handles pro bono lawsuits for victims of child sexual abuse. She said confusion over intent could lead to “a ton” of court appeals if the amendments become law.

Barbara Hartman, president of Chattahoochee Republican Women, attended the hearing and pressed Tillery for answers after he announced what had happened behind closed doors while the public was waiting around. She supports the legislation, which would allow adults to sue both the alleged perpetrators and any organizations that facilitated the abuse and then covered it up.

Both the Boy Scouts of America and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta oppose the House-passed version of HB 605.

“Personally, as one who has diligently worked to get Republicans elected, I am embarrassed and ashamed of the Republicans,” Hartman told the AJC after her long drive home from the Capitol. At least one GOP member of the committee, a lawyer, is a partner in a law firm that defended a client against allegations of covering up child sex abuse.

“This bill is not about them and who they represent in a business dealing,” Hartman said, “but only about what is right for the children of Georgia.”

Tillery said the committee would take up both HB 673 and HB 605 again Thursday at 2 p.m.

Update: On Thursday, the Senate committee approved an amended version of HB 605 that reduced its usefulness for victims so much that the sponsor of the original bill, Rep. Jeremy Spencer, R-Woodbine, said he’ll ask the House to reject the changes.

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