The following piece is an opinion piece by State Representative Jason Spencer. It reflects the views of the author and only those of author and not necessarily those of AllOnGeorgia.
Growing up in rural South Georgia where the church was the center of the community, I was taught right from wrong. I was taught what was good from evil. My town was so small that my Sunday school teacher was also my second grade teacher, and if I strayed from the righteous path, you can bet I would have been convinced to have “seen the light” on my wayward path. However, I was shocked and appalled by Archbishop Gregory’s letter regarding House Bill 605, the “Hidden Predator Act of 2018,” a bill that seeks to give the forgotten victims of childhood sexual abuse a fair shot at justice for the horrific harm caused by sexual predators and the organizations that intentionally and recklessly covered up abuse for decades without recourse. Not only does he stray from the path of righteousness, but the letter demonstrates a shocking misunderstanding of what HB 605 actually does. It demonstrates an apparent arrogance about the sins of the past and willingness to actually misstate facts in support of protecting the Church from liability for what the Church itself concluded was an intentional cover-up of thousands of acts of childhood sexual abuse. How can the Archbishop sign his name to such inaccurate statements that show a desire to protect money over morals and pure indifference to known victims of abuse? When he is called before our Heavenly Father to make a full and final accounting of his priestly life and ministry, what will his Eminence and his Excellency say about the misrepresentations made in his letter about HB 605?
The Catholic Church has stated repeatedly that they have done more than any other institution to protect children from abuse, and Archbishop Gregory’s letter spends much time describing all the wonderful things the Church has done, and is doing, for victims. But the letter glaringly leaves out the fact that the only reason any of the so highly touted programs exist today is due to the thousands of victims that were uncovered from at least 1950 to present day. If the Church is so safe now and provides such great services to young people, then what does it have to hide? What is it worried about?
Archbishop Gregory’s letter, not surprisingly, left out much of the truth about childhood sexual abuse and why HB 605 is absolutely necessary. The truth is that laws like HB 605 came into existence only after the national outrage caused by the Catholic Church scandals involving the repeated molestation of children by priests in 2002. In the aftermath of the Catholic Church’s crisis in 2002, a number of states reformed their statutes of limitations to make it easier for victims to sue the institutions who employed their abusers. This legislative change was directly due to the fact that the Catholic Church’s own investigations, as summarized in the report funded by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops entitled The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010 (May 18, 2011). This report revealed that not only did the Archdiocese of Boston, but every other diocese in the United States, knew that they had a problem with predatory priests, and, instead of reporting them to law enforcement or other lawful civil authorities (like children’s services), they moved the priests around and failed to tell parishioners that they knew these priests were molesting kids.
The Catholic Church conducted such a good cover-up that they literally prevented victims from suing because of statutes of limitations that gave a limited amount of time, usually two or three years from victim’s 18th birthday (a traditional tort statute), within which to sue. In other words, they were so good at hiding the abuse that by the time reasonable people could figure out what was going on, and more importantly, victims could come to grips with what happened to them, it was too late to prosecute or file civil suits. As knowledge expanded, it was realized (and we continue to learn more every day) that organizations like the Boy Scouts of America, USA Olympics, USA Gymnastics, private schools, etc., suffer from the same issues and likewise failed to act in response to abuse until the traditional statutes of limitation expired.
In response to this reality, 46 states have passed bills fashioned along the lines of HB 605 that provide victims opportunities to sue the perpetrators and the entities that protected them. Georgia is the fifth worst state in the country on this issue. And, in fact, since 2015, 17 states have passed bills that have stronger laws than HB 605.
The truth is that the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that Archbishop Gregory cites came about in 2002, only after the Catholic Church was in full blown crisis due to people finding out what the Church knew and the steps it took to hide the abuse and the abusers. The truth is that the Causes and Context report concluded that in the 1980s and 1990s the Catholic Church’s policies were focused on the priests and not the victims. Archbishop Gregory’s letter exhibits that identical philosophy today: focus on the Church and the priests, not the victims. That is the only way anyone could make an argument that would intentionally disregard known victims of abuse.
The Catholic Church claims that the abuse issue is in the past and that it has made amends. If we take them at their word, then the Church has nothing at all to worry about with the passage of HB 605. So, why is the Catholic Church attempting to deny known victims who are not Catholics the right to seek redress for harm done? The truth is that HB 605 does not unfairly target the Catholic Church or any organization for that matter. In fact, the Catholic Church is attempting to unfairly disenfranchise tens of thousands of non-Catholic victims of child sexual abuse across Georgia who have never set foot in a Catholic Church or school. How dare the Church attempt to wield that kind of influence.
Here are the complete fallacies of Archbishop Gregory’s letter:
- He claims that HB 605 allows suits for conduct in the past and, as a result, most states do not permit them. In truth, 46 states have passed bills that allow for increases statutes of limitations that allow victims to sue their abusers and the entities that conceal evidence of their conduct. Alabama, Mississippi, Arizona and North Carolina are the only states that have not passed such laws;
- He claims that HB 605 discriminates between the church and the state. This is nonsense. First, HB 605 is intended to apply to both public and private entities, including the state (see definition of entity on lines 34-35 and lines 58-60 of the bill). Second, because the language in the definition of entity includes both private and public institutions, there is implied consent of the state to waiver sovereign immunity. This is not discrimination. The language has duality. That is consent of the state;
- Finally, he claims that the Church has always supported criminal convictions. However, he left out the fact that the Church actively worked to move child molesters from one diocese to another, thus exposing new parishioners to a known predator for years instead of properly reporting them to the authorities. And even today, the church continues to ignore and deny restitution to known victims.
The truth is that only three percent of Georgians identify themselves as Catholic. If only three percent of the state is Catholic, then the effects of the abuse scandal in the state should be infinitesimal and have absolutely no bearing whatsoever on their other services. Unless, of course, there is something they are not telling us! HB 605 would apply to the other 97 percent of victims in non-Catholic day care centers, non-Catholic churches, pre-schools, private schools, after-school programs, gymnastics and swim programs (that have been rocked with sex abuse scandals nationwide), theater programs, private group homes, clubs, community groups, camps and other institutions where predators gather and are protected. How could this possibly be bad for the citizens of Georgia? This is about protecting all children, not an institution that claims to represent three percent of the population.
The people of Georgia and the honorable members of the Catholic Church should not be bullied by the Catholic Church into protecting predators and the institutions that hide them. A moral dilemma does not exist here. You are either on the side of the pedophile, or you are on the side of the child. Being on the side of the child is the path of righteousness, and if Archbishop Gregory cannot “see the light,” then maybe the parishioners of the Catholic faith should demand a reformation of their hierarchical leadership because I believe he does not speak for most Catholics I know on the issue of child sexual abuse.
Archbishop Gregory should be using his influence and his stature to work towards the goal of providing justice to those who suffered at the hands of their organization. My door is always open to these conversations, but I will not accept the conscious indifference by organizations to look the other way. A deterrent must be established in civil society to right the wrongs perpetrated against our children and to prevent these egregious acts from happening. Justice shall and should prevail.
Remember what Christ said in the book of Luke, chapter 17, verse 2:
It would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and to be thrown into the sea than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
Representative Jason Spencer represents the citizens of District 180, which includes Camden, Charlton, and Ware counties. He was elected into the House of Representatives in 2010, and currently serves as the Secretary of the Special Rules Committee. He also serves on the Game Fish & Parks, Human Relations & Aging, Juvenile Justice, and Science & Technology committees.