Vic­tims of child sex abuse in Ge­or­gia face pow­er­ful foes

The Standard Journal - - POLICE & FIRE - YAR­BROUGH [email protected]­yarbrough.com; www.face­book.com/ dick­yarb.

Mar­lan Wil­banks is a man on a mis­sion. An At­lanta at­tor­ney, Wil­banks is the driv­ing force be­hind the Wil­banks Child En­dan­ger­ment and Sex­ual Ex­ploita­tion Clinic the na­tion’s first le­gal clinic ded­i­cated to rep­re­sent­ing sur­vivors of child sex­ual abuse. The clinic is a part of the Univer­sity of Ge­or­gia School of Law and gives sec­ond- and third-year law stu­dents the op­por­tu­nity to gain ex­pe­ri­ence in the prac­tice of law while serv­ing a cru­cial need in the com­mu­nity.

The im­pe­tus for the clinic, a state law known as the Hid­den Preda­tor Act, went into ef­fect July 1, 2015, al­low­ing vic­tims of child sex­ual abuse to file civil suits against per­pe­tra­tors.

So far, so good. But not good enough, Wil­banks says. He is push­ing for leg­is­la­tion that would raise the age when vic­tims of child sex abuse in Ge­or­gia could file a law­suit from 23 to 55. The law he en­vi­sions would also cre­ate a two-year win­dow that would let any vic­tim of child sex abuse to file suit, re­gard­less of when the abuse oc­curred. Ge­or­gia is one of the few states in the coun­try that sets its statute of lim­i­ta­tions for child sex­ual abuse un­der the age of 23.

Wil­banks says op­po­si­tion to re­vis­ing the Hid­den Preda­tor Act is com­ing pri­mar­ily from the Boy Scouts and the Catholic Church, both of whom have had their share of child sex abuse cases and both of whom have less than stel­lar rep­u­ta­tions in how they have han­dled or mis­han­dled them. And then there is the Ge­or­gia Cham­ber of Com­merce and its mem­ber­ship with their deep pock­ets and aver­sion to law­suits of any kind, any­where, no mat­ter who or what it is.

Wil­banks claims the Boy Scouts and the churches don’t want any bill passed that would al­low vic­tims to sue them. “They are happy to have the vic­tim sue the preda­tor in­di­vid­u­ally,” Wil­banks says, “How­ever, even if they knew about the sex­ual abuse and chose to do noth­ing about it or helped to con­ceal the preda­tor, they don’t want any fi­nan­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity for their ac­tions.”

Mar­lan Wil­banks puts much of the blame for that bad at­ti­tude on four spe­cific sen­a­tors, all Re­pub­li­cans, all mem­bers of the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee and all with a di­rect or in­di­rect con­nec­tion to the Boy Scouts of Amer­ica: Chair­man Jesse Stone, Way­nes­boro; Vice Chair Bill Cowsert, Ath- ens; John Kennedy, Macon; and Wil­liam Ligon, of Brunswick.

He says their con­nec­tions to the Boy Scouts calls into ques­tion se­ri­ous con­flicts of in­ter­est in the Se­nate’s rules of con­duct, when “of­fi­cial ac­tion or de­ci­sions are mo­ti­vated not by pub­lic duty but by eco­nomic self-in­ter­est or as­so­ci­a­tion.”

Wil­banks points out that Cowserts’ law part­ner, Steve Heath, rep­re­sented an Athens church in a law­suit al­leg­ing a coverup by the church and the Boy Scouts of mo­lesta­tion charges against a for­mer Scout leader. Cowserts re­moved en­tity li­a­bil­ity from the Hid­den Preda­tor Act in the Se­nate ver­sion of the bill.

Sen. Kennedy sits on the board of the Cen­tral Boy Scout Coun­cil. Wil­banks says Kennedy’s work shield­ing the Boy Scouts from be­ing sued is a clear con­flict of in­ter­est, as is Stone’s, who serves on the Ge­or­gia-Carolina Boy Scout Coun­cil. Wil­liam Ligon has been hon­ored by the or­ga­ni­za­tion with one off their high­est recog­ni­tions, the Sil­ver Ea­gle Award. Of course, these guys are go­ing to look out for the Boy Scouts.

Wil­banks says, “They don’t want the en­ti­ties that con­ceal preda­tors to ever pay any money to the vic­tims. That is what the spe­cial in­ter­ests are bank­ing on.”

Child sex abuse is not con­fined to the Boy Scouts or the Catholic Church. The Hous­ton Chron­i­cle and the San An­to­nio Ex­pressNews re­ported af­ter a six-month in­ves­ti­ga­tion that some 380 South­ern Bap­tist church lead­ers and work­ers, in­clud­ing 13 in Ge­or­gia, were ac­cused of sex­ual mis­con­duct of more than 700 vic­tims in the past two decades with some vic­tims as young as 3 years. The Rev. J.D. Greear, the SBC’s pres­i­dent says the abuses de­scribed in the news re­port “are pure evil.” No kid­ding.

There is a lot of fin­ger-point­ing on both sides but, as usual, vic­tims of child sex abuse are caught in the mid­dle. The Boy Scouts with the sup­port of pow­er­ful leg­is­la­tors has clout. The vic­tims don’t.

I have no idea how all of this will turn out this ses­sion but this much I do know: These or­ga­ni­za­tions may high-five their leg­isla­tive bud­dies over a win in the po­lit­i­cal arena, but they are los­ing in the court of pub­lic opin­ion.

You can reach Dick Yar­brough at

at P.O. Box 725373, At­lanta, Ge­or­gia 31139 or on Face­book at

Yar­brough

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