Despite widespread public outrage over child sexual abuse revealed by a grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania last month and a $27 million settlement paid in New York last week, overwhelming obstacles remain for most survivors to recover damages—mainly the statute of limitations.
“I understand the general reasoning why you have a statute of limitations. You can’t allow people to have the risk of litigation unendingly. That makes sense in many respects—except for the injury of childhood sexual abuse,” said Darren Penn of the Penn Law Group. “Most people don’t disclose the abuse until they’re 42. That’s the average.”
The statute of limitations in Georgia requires that survivors of childhood sex abuse file their lawsuits by the time they are 23. But most people don’t disclose until mid-life for a number of reasons, Penn said. Sometimes the perpetrators threaten the victims or their family. More often, the children are too young to explain or they are too embarrassed or fearful. In many cases, survivors disclose only after their children reach the age they were when they were abused and they report flashbacks.
Penn has represented survivors and has several current lawsuits against educational and religious institutions and their employees. He is part of a group of lawyers and advocates who tried this year to persuade the Georgia General Assembly to reduce restrictions on such cases. They lost.
The Hidden Predator Act of 2018 would have built on an earlier version which opened a two-year window on the statute of limitations for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file lawsuits. That window ended last year.
But even the lawsuits that were filed during that time led to little in recovery because the extension applied only to individual defendants, not institutions. Lobbyists and a majority of legislators this year argued that allowing entities such as schools, churches and scouting organizations to be sued would cause financial hardships. Institutions generally would offer the only potential for financial recovery—unless the individual just happens to have ample assets. Even a home owner or liability umbrella insurance policy would not pay in a circumstance where a crime is committed, Penn said.
So the statute of limitations becomes the key to potential recovery of damages. Penn said he believes states need to follow the example of Florida and a handful of others that had removed the statute of limitations entirely for adult survivors of childhood sex abuse.
Legislators in Pennsylvania have suggested removing or increasing the age of the statute of limitations after a grand jury report last month revealing that 300 priests had sexually abused 1000 children. After that, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo spoke out in favor of lifting the statute of limitations on such claims there. More calls for removal of the limits follows a report last week that the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn had agreed to pay a $27.5 million settlement to four people who had been abused by a church volunteer.
“There’s no statute of limitations for murder,” Penn said. “Why should there be one for childhood sexual abuse?”
In a blog post on his firm website, Penn has said that professionals who work with survivors often compare childhood sexual abuse to murder because of what it does to the soul—and the future health—of the person. Survivors often experience the same kinds of harm over a lifetime: depression, suicide attempts, substance abuse, relationship issues.
“A lot of times you’ll meet them, and they’re just a wreck,” Penn said. But he’s been encouraged to find survivors have been strengthened by their disclosures and their support of each other—aside from any recovery of damages.
“It’s a wonderful thing to see,” Penn said. “They’ve always thought they were the only ones and kept it secret. When they find out they’re not the only victim, they come together and form a bond. It’s healing.”
So when the General Assembly convenes again in Atlanta, Penn and other lawyers and activists will be renewing their efforts to expand or remove the state of limitations for survivor litigation.
“We are committed to doing everything we can possibly do to get the law changed in Georgia,” Penn said. “We will stay on this until there is a law passed that makes sense.”