The Georgia Senate Judiciary Committee hears testimony on the Hidden Predator Act. Author Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, faces the panel as, seated to his left, defense attorney Stevan Millar, criticizes the proposal. Observers behind them include people who say they were sexually abused as children. March 15, 2018, Atlanta, TY TAGAMI / TTAGAMI@AJC.COM

Conservative groups split over child sex abuse legislation

A lawsuit has split a South Georgia town between supporters of a local church and those who are deeply troubled by allegations of child sexual abuse involving church members.

A man from the world’s sweet onion capital says in a lawsuit that he was a child when an older man associated with the youth group at First Baptist Church molested him a couple of decades ago.

“Things are not real good in Vidalia, Georgia right now. Citizens are torn up,” said Kay Stafford, a church member and retired attorney who isn’t directly involved in the lawsuit but is bothered by what he sees as a culture of silence around child sexual abuse. “It ain’t going to be right until there’s justice.”

“Vehicle,” the Phrase of the Week by James Salzer. Video by Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Controversies like this are likely to spread across Georgia if legislation being debated in the state Senate becomes law. It’s splitting Baptists and other social conservatives against organizations such as the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts.

The Vidalia lawsuit came after the civil statute of limitations had expired for the plaintiff. He only had access to the courts because a 2015 law temporarily eliminated the deadline. Now, Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, the author of that law, is back with new legislation that would both extend the statute of limitations and open windows for alleged victims of any age to sue not only the people they accuse of abuse, but also churches and other organizations that may have covered it up.

The stakes are so high that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, and now the Boy Scouts of America, are openly opposing House Bill 605, known as the Hidden Predator Act.

The Catholic Church came out against the legislation two weeks ago, after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained evidence that it was quietly lobbying against it.

Then, for the first time last week, a lobbyist for the Boy Scouts openly testified against it.

The Scouts are willing to work with anyone on “this scourge” of pedophilia, said the lobbyist, Edward Lindsey, a lawyer and former GOP state representative from Atlanta. But the legislation needs to be changed, he said. The Scouts are concerned about due process for the accused in decades-old cases, he said, echoing the Archbishop: Witnesses move or die and memories fade. “Time ruins evidence.”

Some Christians, including Stafford, who quoted the Bible while testifying at last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, support a right to sue organizations despite the passage of decades. Mike Griffin, a spokesman for the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, also testified for HB 605.

“We’re for individuals and entities being held accountable,” Griffin told the senators. “We really are for no tolerance on this issue.”

Jessica DuBois, a lobbyist for Georgia Right to Life, testified that her group “strongly” supports the legislation.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys who also back the bill say subjecting organizations with substantial bank accounts to liability is the only way to get justice. Lawyers are less likely to take cases without the potential for a payout, they said, noting that only 14 lawsuits resulted from the 2015 law, which didn’t expose entities to liability to the extent proposed in HB 605.

“The only way you change the behavior of these big corporations is to hit them in their pocketbooks,” said Marlan Willbanks, a lawyer who helped to establish a clinic at the University of Georgia School of Law that represents survivors of child sexual abuse.

After the bill passed the Georgia House of Representatives 170-0, a lobbyist for the Archdiocese approached the Senate with amendments that would have gutted it. The AJC obtained a copy of the lobbyist’s work and contacted the Atlanta Archdiocese for comment. Hours later, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory issued a statement on the Archdiocese newspaper’s website that said he opposed HB 605 because he believed it was “extraordinarily unfair” to make churches and other organizations defend themselves against allegations involving child sexual abuse “potentially as far back as the 1940s.” In such old cases, he wrote, the accused are often dead, making such lawsuits difficult “if not impossible” to defend.

Innocent people and their organizations would be “radically impacted,” Gregory wrote.

The Boy Scouts, some Baptist churches and their lawyers fear the same thing: a wave of litigation.

“It takes an enormous amount of money to mount a defense,” said M. Steven Heath, a lawyer defending a Baptist church in Athens in a case involving the Boy Scouts. The church is named in a 263-paragraph complaint alleging it helped to conceal allegations that a Scout leader had sexually abused boys in a program associated with that church and two others. The molestation allegedly occurred from the 1950s to the 1980s, spanning more than a half-dozen U.S. presidencies, starting with Harry S. Truman’s.

If anyone knew what was going onthey are dead, gone or have failing memories, Heath told the senators on the Judiciary Committee. It takes an “enormous amount” of money to defend against a lawsuit like this, and the cost falls on current congregants.

If HB 605 becomes law, Heath predicted, congregations will abandon churches that are accused. “Many churches will simply collapse under the sheer weight of defense costs,” he said.

Heath, whose law partner Bill Cowsert is a GOP senator on the Judiciary Committee, wasn’t the only testifying lawyer with a stake in the legislation. Lawyers for and against the Boy Scouts spoke at last week’s hearing, including one on the other side of Heath’s case, Darren Penn.

Penn said HB 605 does not violate due-process protections as opponents claim. Similar laws in other states have not been ruled unconstitutional, and there are no appeals-court decisions against Georgia’s first go-around with the Hidden Predator Act, in 2015, he said.

Penn, a former president of the Georgia Trial Lawyers Association, acknowledged that it can be difficult to determine what may or may not have happened decades ago. But he said the burden of proof is on the alleged victims, not the defendant, “especially with stale evidence.” He asserted, though, that this legislation could help to unearth evidence, including what his Athens lawsuit refers to as Boy Scout “perversion files.”

“There are still thousands of files that are being withheld from the public,” Penn said, “and it’s an everyday activity trying to get them released.”

Aside from concerns about old evidence and defense costs, opponents complain that the law would apply mainly to private organizations. Public schools in Georgia, which oversee 1.8 million students, are not specifically exempted, but they are generally protected from lawsuits by a legal exemption called “sovereign immunity.”

Proponents, meanwhile, worry that HB 605 won’t get another hearing, let alone be voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in time for a vote on the Senate floor before this legislative session ends next week.

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