Published March 14, 2018 | En Español
ATLANTA—The following frequently asked questions about Georgia House Bill 605 were provided by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory to supplement his March 9 letter to the Catholic community.
How does the Archdiocese help survivors of sexual abuse?
The Archdiocese of Atlanta offers its services to those who have experienced abuse as a minor by church personnel, whether the abuse occurred within or outside of this archdiocese.
- In cases of current abuse of a minor or past abuse of a minor by church personnel within the Archdiocese, the Office of Child & Youth Protection’s Victim Assistance Program will offer various resources in an effort to bring about healing for the victim, their family and their parish community.
- In cases of past abuse of a minor by church personnel outside of the Archdiocese, the Office of Child & Youth Protection’s Victim Assistance Program will serve as a liaison with the diocese in which the abuse occurred in an effort to bring about healing for the victim and their family.
- We offer counseling and various treatment options for victims, Catholic or not, at no cost.
- Archdiocesan policy requires that all reports of childhood abuse be referred to police or other appropriate government agencies.
The Archdiocese has arguably the strongest safe environment program protecting children in the State of Georgia. The Church and our schools have a zero tolerance policy for any sexual abuse, let alone that harming young people.
What is House Bill 605?
HB 605 is a Bill that would undermine churches, private schools, businesses, and non-profit organizations by allowing lawsuits for childhood sexual abuse that occurred decades ago, from as far back as the 1940’s, long after the statute of limitations expired. The accused offenders are often deceased. Recognizing that these lawsuits are unfair, the vast majority of states do not permit them.
Aside from the passage of time making it difficult, if not impossible, to defend these lawsuits, HB 605 is unfair because it does not permit lawsuits against governmental bodies. All governmental agencies, county and public schools are immune from the potential devastating financial effects of these lawsuits. If the government and public schools are protected, why target private schools, churches and non-profits?
Proponents of HB 605, such as trial lawyers, argue that the Bill protects children. However, HB 605 does not protect any child. It unfairly targets innocent people and the organizations to which they belong who will be severely impacted for the actions of individuals long ago. We fully support lawsuits and criminal prosecution against any individual predator of children no matter when the abuse is alleged to have occurred; however, HB 605 goes far beyond that.
What is the Statute of Limitations?
The statute of limitations is a fundamental concept written into law that imposes a time limit on the filing of a legal claim. A statute of limitations is intended to protect the interests of all parties by guaranteeing that legal questions are addressed in a timely and fair manner. This is because with the passage of time memories fade, witnesses die and evidence is lost or destroyed. Even where witnesses are available, their memories are less reliable. Given these circumstances, proof and defense of actions become extremely difficult or impossible for all concerned.
HB 605 has to do with the civil statute of limitations – that is, with time limits on suits seeking money damages. Statutes of limitations, generally speaking, begin to run from the time of the act giving rise to a claim. The existing statute of limitations for past childhood sexual abuse is five years after the plaintiff reaches the age of eighteen. So, for any claim of childhood sexual abuse that occurred before 2015, a plaintiff must sue before reaching the age of 23.
How did the law change in 2015?
The same interests currently supporting HB 605 sought to change the law in 2015 to open a “window” allowing suits against private organizations, churches and non-profits, regardless of when the abuse occurred in the past. The Georgia legislature refused to do this recognizing the unfairness of such lawsuits. The legislature did approve a two-year “window” for suits against the individual predator regardless of when the abuse occurred. The Archdiocese fully supported that measure.
What is the Archdiocese’s position?
The Archdiocese supports holding abusers criminally and civilly accountable and we support every effort to protect children. The Archdiocese opposes the extension or removal of the civil statute of limitations for child abuse cases and/or the creation of a “window” during which decades-old claims can be filed against employers, institutions, parties and organizations that had nothing to do with abuse in the distant past.
What’s wrong with HB 605?
It does not allow suits against government entities, such as public schools, city and county recreation agencies, and the like. In order to allow suits against the government, a law must specifically waive the defense of Sovereign Immunity, a legal concept that prevents a government and its departments and agencies from a suit charging it with liability without its consent. In addition, state governments, counties and municipalities are further protected by the requirement that a claimant must give written notice of a claim within one year of the injury. HB 605 does not provide for either a waiver of Sovereign Immunity or an extension of time to file the required notice. Thus, state, county and city institutions are protected because any lawsuits filed against such governmental entities would be subject to dismissal.
It changes the rules after the fact. It would waive a fundamental principle of American law – the statute of limitations – on civil lawsuits claiming sexual abuse of a young person. For the one-year “window” period, anyone could file a lawsuit claiming to have been the victim of childhood sexual abuse at any time in the past. In doing this, the Bill would resuscitate claims so old that the current, longstanding Georgia law bars them from court. The legislation invites individuals to file a lawsuit even if their alleged abuser is long dead and no one alive can corroborate their claims. The Georgia legislature rightly rejected this effort in 2015.
It encourages lawsuits against non-profits and businesses, not the abusers themselves. Sexual abuse is a crime and abusers should be punished. But, this Bill is targeted at punishing their employers – not-for-profit institutions or businesses. Catastrophic legal claims could decimate these organizations. This does not result in punishment for abusers. It results in punishment for innocent people who depend on their jobs, the invaluable services of non-profits and spiritual direction from their churches.
It discriminates. It permits only some victims to resuscitate such old lawsuits and permits them to sue only some organizations. It permits lawsuits against only private organizations – including small businesses and not-for-profit and religious groups. Amazingly, the law would not apply to public schools, where there seems to be growing evidence and escalating public concern with significant sexual abuse of children.
Hofstra University Professor Charol Shakeshaft, in a 2004 report, addressed the larger problem directly. “The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests,” she was quoted in Education Week, estimating that 290,000 students experienced some form of physical sexual abuse by a public school employee between 1991 and 2000 (1).
In that 2004 analysis of research for the U.S. Department of Education, Professor Shakeshaft estimated that 4.5 million students were subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade (2). Among 329 school superintendents that Professor Shakeshaft interviewed in the mid-1990s, 58 percent said they had dealt with sexual abuse of a student by a professional employee (3).
It creates two classes of victims when all citizens should be treated equally. The Bill would give a person who has a claim for sexual abuse in 1950 in a private school an opportunity to sue the school and alleged abuser, while a person who has the same claim for such abuse in 1950 in a public school would get no such right. As explained above, governmental entities such as the state, counties and municipalities have “immunity” from lawsuits and very short notice periods of one year or less for a suit by a plaintiff alleging sexual abuse. HB 605 does absolutely nothing to fix this disparity.
It fails to accomplish what the public really wants: An end to sexual abuse of children. This Bill will not prevent a single instance of sexual abuse anywhere. It will foster expensive litigation, but it does nothing to protect children.
How could the legislation impact parishes, schools and services?
If this Bill becomes law, it is not the guilty who will pay. Instead, the innocent will pay. The parishes, schools, and other Catholic constituents in the Archdiocese could be the subject of decades-old claims costing enormous sums of money, just to defend lawsuits.
The Archdiocese of Atlanta serves approximately 1.2 million Catholics in 104 parishes and missions. There are eighteen Archdiocesan Catholic schools and seven independent Catholic schools, which educate nearly 12,000 students. There are another approximately 46,000 students in parish religious education programs. In addition, the Archdiocese supports fifteen college campus ministries and serves thousands of other Georgians, including many who are low-income, minorities, or not Catholic. Its outreach programs assist the homeless, refugees, the unemployed, immigrants and pregnant women. The vibrancy of the Catholic Church and all other Churches in Georgia is important to the well-being of all citizens of this state.
A law such as HB 605 that encourages lawsuits for events alleged to have occurred long ago, if approved, could have a devastating impact on the services and programs of the Archdiocese, parishes, and Catholic schools in our state.
How can l get involved?
- Contact your state senator and other elected officials to let them know you join the over one million Georgia Catholics in opposition to HB 605. Locate your state senator in your district here: https://openstates.org/ga/.
- Email Governor Nathan Deal and ask him not to sign this bill into law: https://gov.georgia.gov/contact-us
- Contact Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle and ask him not to allow this bill to reach the Senate floor for vote: https://ltgov.georgia.gov/contact-lt-governor.
- Stay informed. Follow this issue in The Georgia Bulletin and at georgiabulletin.org.
(1) “Sexual Abuse by Educators Is Scrutinized,” Education Week (March 10, 2004) (available at www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2004/03/10/26abusc.h23.html).
(2) Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature (2004) (Doc. # 2004-09, available at files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED483143.pdf).
(3) “Sexual Abuse of Students by School Personnel,” Phi Delta Kappan (March 1995) (Vol. 76765ac7, p. 512).