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, Athens; John Kennedy, Macon; and William Ligon, of White Oak.
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 of their highest recognitions, the Silver Eagle Award. Of course, these guys are going to look out for the Boy Scouts.
Wilbanks said “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 Express-News 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 old. 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.