A Buckhead attorney is prepared to sue private schools in Buckhead and the metro area for alleged sexual abuse by staffers many years ago, but needs legislation to pass that would extend the statute of limitations.
Legislation that would have opened a window to file such lawsuits against died last month after being opposed by such organizations as the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, which has its head church in Buckhead.
A previous version of the bill passed in 2015 and gave victims two years — through July 1, 2017 — to sue individuals who abused them even if the statute of limitations had long passed, which led to a settlement involving a priest who once served at All Saints Catholic Church in Dunwoody. That two-year window did not allow victims to sue an ,entity or organization like a school or church. The most recent bill is aimed at allowing those institutional lawsuits.
“There’s a lot of institutional culpability that hasn’t been addressed,” said Darren Penn, an attorney who lives in Buckhead and operates his law practice on Northside Parkway.
Penn has been working to help get the bill passed since 2015.
“I will do everything in my power to get it passed,” he said. “This is an ongoing issue that is not going away for Georgia.”
Penn represents victims of alleged abuse by officials at Darlington School, a Rome boarding school, and Georgia Boy Scout troops. He also has more than 20 cases involving schools in Buckhead and the metro area, but they are not public yet and Penn declined to name them. He does not have any cases against any Catholic churches.
Some of his cases would need the Hidden Predator Act or similar legislation to pass before Penn could file any lawsuits because the statute of limitations has expired.
Current law limits victims of child sexual abuse from suing past age 23. House Bill 605 would have raised that age limit to 38.
Georgia has some of the weakest laws in the U.S. for victims of sexual abuse, Penn said.
Allowing victims to sue years, or even decades later, is necessary because many child victims aren’t able to acknowledge what happened to them until then, he said. They are traumatized and often don’t know what resources could help them or that laws outlaw it, Penn said.
A provision that would require victims to prove the entity intentionally covered up the abuse in order to sue it was later added to the bill, which Penn thinks is unrealistic. He hopes it will be removed when the bill is reintroduced.
“There was an intent by the entities to make it very difficult for victims to sue,” he said.
Penn has attended Cathedral of Christ the King in Buckhead, the mother church of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, for several years, and still does despite the Archdiocese’s opposition to a bill that he strongly supports.
“The private interests played too much of role,” Penn said. “I hope that doesn’t happen again.”
Archbishop Wilton Gregory declined to be interviewed, but a letter from Gregory posted online outlines his opposition. The objection revolves around concern that those accused are often already dead and the cases are nearly impossible to defend, the statement says. Such laws would jeopardize the church, Gregory said.
“Innocent people and the organizations to which they belong will be radically impacted based on allegations against individuals who may no longer even be alive and cannot speak for themselves,” Gregory said in the letter.
Both the 2015 and 2018 versions of the Hidden Predator Act were sponsored by state Rep. Jason Spencer, a Republican from Woodbine, who was inspired to take action on the issue by a case in his district involving a karate instructor. The instructor could not be held responsible because the statute of limitations had long passed.
“I felt like that was not fair,” he said.
The 2015 law made it possible for a victim to sue Father Stanley Idziak, who served at All Saints Catholic Church in Dunwoody in the late 1970s. The abuse took place at a different church in Stone Mountain, said the victim’s attorney, John Burdges.
Idziak died before the case was settled, but the victim was able to get some money from his estate, Burdges said. More than anything, being able to sue Idziak provided closure for the victim, he said.
“He didn’t get a bucket full of money, but it closed a chapter in his life,” he said. “Being able to fight back and be heard meant a lot to him.”