Widespread disclosures of long-hidden sexual abuse have created an opportunity for lawyers to take a broader view of justice, said a prosecutor who is about to take a new job with a clinic devoted to survivors at University of Georgia law school.
“It’s great to see an awakening,” Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Assistant District Attorney Jean Mangan said in an interview Monday. “The #metoo campaign is allowing child sexual abuse survivors to realize you’re not alone.”
The outpouring of disclosures followed a New York Times report that film producer Harvey Weinstein had used his position to sexually abuse and exploit actresses and other young women. The Times named eight women. Others followed with their own stories, often on social media. Entertainment Weekly reports 57 now.
Then a man accused actor Kevin Spacey of sexual assault at a Broadway cast party—when the victim was a teenager. More men followed with their own disclosures from teen years. Recently a woman alleged she was a teenage target of sexual aggression by former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore—twice fired for refusing to uphold the Constitution and now the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate to fill the seat opened by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Over Moore’s denials, more women followed with similar claims.
Many additional disclosures have been made on social media with #metoo. The outpouring has exposed pervasive sexual abuse and exploitation of children and young men and women.
“It’s becoming more OK to talk about it,” Mangan said, adding that predators have long isolated their targets with silence by threatening denial, shame and harm. “If we as a society can become—not comfortable—but willing to discuss these difficult topics, then that is the first step in getting them to stop.”
Mangan prosecutes cases from traffic to murder, including sexual abuse, in a rural community. Starting in December, Mangan will become the first staff attorney at the Wilbanks Child Endangerment and Sexual Exploitation Clinic in Athens, called CEASE.
CEASE is hosting a conference of lawyers, professors and social workers at the law school Jan. 27 to discuss identifying and reporting child sexual abuse as well as lawsuits surrounding institutional and commercial exploitation of children.
The clinic opened two years ago to help lawyers and survivors file lawsuits under the open window in the statute of limitations for lawsuits created by Georgia’s Hidden Predator Act. It was the first such program of its kind in the country and has since become a contact point for those seeking to provide the same kind of help, according to Emma Hetherington, the clinic’s director and an assistant clinical professor at the law school.
“We want to be a place where attorneys and survivors from all over the country can come for advice,” Hetherington said in an interview last week. “To do that, I said I need a staff attorney.” As a prosecutor, Mangan is “very aware of the trauma these people experience,” Hetherington said. That fits the clinic’s mission of teaching lawyers to be “trauma-informed” so that they can take a more holistic approach to helping their clients.
But also as a prosecutor, Mangan is aware that sometimes a criminal case is not the solution—either because the time elapsed is too long or because evidence of abuse is elusive.
“Every defendant is innocent until proven guilty. The state bears the responsibility to prove beyond a reasonable doubt,” Mangan said. “Sometimes as a prosecutor, I know this happened, but I can’t prove it.”
Though the evidence burden is different, proving a civil case provides its own challenges. Even the Hidden Predator Act fell short when a judge ruled that the law does now allow institutions—such as churches or nonprofit organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America—to be held accountable. The lawsuits that proceeded were only against individuals. And there haven’t been as many of those as people might think. Hetherington said she knows of 13.
The clinic has taken in 50 clients in its first two years and filed five lawsuits, Hetherington said. Along with the director, eight law students work with them, plus Jennifer Elkins, a professor in the School of Social Work.
The potential payoff for those cases may not be well understood, according to the new staff attorney about to join the clinic.
“Adults think the people we have suing are expecting millions of dollars. They’re not,” said Mangan. “But what they are expecting is to be recognized, be heard and have someone say this was wrong that this happened to you.”
Mangan also has handled civil litigation from both sides. After graduating from UGA law school, she worked as an associate at Hurt, Stolz & Cromwell in Athens, now Hurt Stolz, on class actions and other civil ligation. That included lawsuits against debt repayment companies that took money from desperate people and failed to help. She said the attorneys there showed “a passion for helping people and you didn’t have to be in the criminal justice system.” She said she learned the value of being able to say, “I hear you. Let me help you.”
Later she worked on litigation defense for trucking companies at Austin & Sparks. She assisted partners in preparing for trial to defend personal injury cases. There also she sees some lessons beyond any one case for the current #MeToo moment.
“Think about products liability litigation,” Mangan said. “If you keep suing a company over and over for faulty brakes, they’re going to stop making those faulty brakes.”
The clinic’s founder, Marlan Wilbanks of Wilbanks & Gouinlock in Atlanta, has said he plans to provide ongoing funding. That will allow the clinic’s work to continue regardless of payout on those lawsuits in the pipeline. And those involved with the clinic will be watching the Georgia General Assembly next year for changes in the works for the Hidden Predator Act to include the deeper pockets or institutions that knowingly allow children to be sexually exploited or abused. But either way, the #MeToo movement provides lawyers with a moment to reflect on broadening their view.
“Even if there is no financial recovery, there is something to be said for a victory in court,” Mangan said. “As jaded as we are, we need to remember that justice is more than money.”