As more states make organizations pay a heavy price for childhood sexual abuse, Georgia legislators are busy behind the scenes drafting laws that many hope will give survivors of childhood sexual abuse better access to justice. If all goes well, Georgia could join the ranks of many of today’s proactive states who have changed their laws to allow victims of any age a reasonable window of time to seek civil remedies against organizations that allowed or turned a blind eye to childhood sexual abuse.
However, as we have seen before, where such legislation has been introduced, coordinated opposition has followed from the groups that stand to lose the most. Busy behind the scenes are also The Catholic Church, Boy Scouts of America, insurance companies, and other special interest groups who argue that such changes to legislation will result in a tsunami of lawsuits, that in many cases those in charge of a past administration are long gone, and that victims have waited too long anyway to make their case.
These types of arguments have been used to kill child sexual abuse bills for over a decade. “Since 2009 alone, state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have tried at least 200 times to extend the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases”, according to USA TODAY.
But states are wising up to the realities of childhood sexual abuse and recognizing that most victims don’t even come forward until their late 40s or older. The reason for this is that sexual abuse trauma often leads people to shut down and not tell anyone about it. Repressed trauma can lead to anxiety, depression, isolation, acting out, addictive behaviors, wrecked relationships, and even suicide. This can go on for decades before a person might turn to therapy, and even then, it could be years before the trauma and abuser are confronted.
Therefore the passage of time should not, in and of itself, insulate institutions from liability for their actions, regardless of whether the harm is cancer, physical injury or sexual abuse.
I say this not only as a therapist but as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse myself. I am one of 18 plaintiffs suing Darlington School in Rome for letting sexual abuse at the school go ignored for many years. One victim committed suicide. The others struggled to come to grips with the abuse. This is what happens: it takes a long time before many sexual abuse victims are able to disclose and seek justice. But by that time the door for restitution is mostly shut. Particularly in Georgia, where the statute of limitations to bring a civil suit is 23, an age when the human brain is not even fully developed.
Recognizing this reality, 45 states have raised the age limit above 30 and 6 have opened a retroactive window of time to allow victims of any age to seek redress. Five states rank at the bottom: South Dakota, Louisiana, Missouri, Alabama, Ohio, and Georgia. These states make it harder for victims to access justice and easier for institutions to turn a blind eye and run out the statute of limitations clock. The result is a legal powder keg. It is just a matter of time that victims of sexual abuse will speak out as we have seen with the #MeToo movement.
We need strong laws as a deterrent. If it was institutional suicide to turn a blind-eye to sexual abuse, it is very likely that the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts of America, USA Gymnastics, Darlington, and others would have acted with far more urgency at the first whiff of potential wrong doing.
We can’t let the fear mongering of lobbyists decide justice. While institutions with a history of sex abuse might have reason to worry about civil suits, the claim that extending the statute of limitations or providing for a retroactive window that allows for entity liability would lead to a flood of cases is simply not backed up by the data available from other states that have those policies in place, according to Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic.
The bottom line is that there isn’t justice until the harm has been remedied. We may not be able to prevent all predators from entering institutions, but with the right legislation, we can give victims access to justice and ensure entities with a lax system of oversight are held accountable.