When a Georgia legislator set out to help victims of childhood sexual assault seek justice, he never knew the role his bill would play in one of the biggest sexual assault scandals in America.
The exposure of Larry Nassar’s history of sexually abusing more than 150 women was made possible by a Georgia sex abuse scandal involving a young gymnast.
State Rep. Jason Spencer, R-Woodbine, filed House Bill 17, and the Hidden Predator Act was signed into law in 2015. The law temporarily extended the statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases, making it possible for victims to confront their abusers in court.
Along with an extension, the law also included provisions that required private agencies to make records regarding child sexual abuse cases accessible to victims, whether or not the case was closed.
The law helped make it possible for a young woman from Savannah to come forward and sue USA Gymnastics. In the case Jane Doe v. USA Gymnastics, the woman claimed to have been assaulted when she was 11 years old by her gymnastics coach, William ‘Bill’ McCabe, in Savannah.
“This case is what started it all,” said Brian Cornwell, the lead attorney in the case. “This case is the ground zero of the litigation and the fallout of USA Gymnastics.”
McCabe, who is now serving a 30-year sentence for the sexual exploitation of children including the Savannah “Jane Doe,” was found to have taken pornographic photos of her as she was changing and published the images. She was not the only victim.
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But that’s not the beginning, or the end, of the story. Letters were sent to USA Gymnastics by eight of McCabe’s former gym employers, including “three pages of allegations” and information regarding a multitude of complaints against McCabe accusing him of sexual harassment. One gym owner even warned USA Gymnastics that McCabe “should be locked in a cage before someone is raped.”
In 2016, three reporters including Marisa Kwiatkowski of The Indianapolis Star began investigating allegations against USA Gymnastics. Kwiatkowski, who spoke at a University of Georgia conference on Saturday, and her colleagues began their investigation after hearing about the Jane Doe case here in Georgia.
They intervened in the Georgia Jane Doe lawsuit and asked for the release of the files on McCabe gathered by USA Gymnastics, along with files on over 50 other gymnastic coaches.
The Georgia law helped force USA Gymnastics to turn over records regarding sexual abuse allegations that exposed the organization’s knowledge of McCabe’s history and its ignorance regarding urges by his past employers.
“Everything about the Nassar investigation, everything they found, it all was a result of this Georgia case,” said Cornwell. “After the Indianapolis Star piece was written on the Georgia case, all of these victims of Larry Nassar came to them with information, and the investigation on Nassar began.”
Atlanta attorney Derek Bauer represented The Indianapolis Star in its fight against USA Gymnastics.
“USA Gymnastics opposed The Indianapolis Star in response to the motion and it became clear they weren’t going to release those records until they were absolutely required to do so for as long as they possibly could,” Bauer said. “I mean they tried everything possible to get out of it.”
Former gymnast Rachael Denhollander and another woman read The Indianapolis Star’s story about the Georgia case and came forward with information that led to the cases against Nassar, a USA Gymnastics doctor, involving sexual abuse against over 100 women.
Spencer is now trying to expand the law so that organizations that conceal reports of abuse can also face tougher penalties.
Under the current law, organizations can only be found guilty of gross negligence during the law’s two year discovery period, he said. “But if I get the language that I want in my bill, then the (Jane Doe) victim could go after USA Gymnastics for concealing critical information. We could absolutely make that happen.”
Cornwell believes that if the bill is successfully expanded, they would also be able to gain access to many more documents regarding USA Gymnastics’ involvement and understanding of the sexual abuse that had been taking place inside their own organization.
Spencer’s plan is to expand on the two bills he filed last year, House Bill 2 and House Bill 605. These bills would extend the statutory limit from age 23 to 38 and widen the discovery window from two to eight years, which can make a pivotal difference for victims of sexual abuse.
While some lawmakers fear that the Hidden Predator Act will lead to an avalanche of frivolous lawsuits, Spencer says that would not be possible because of the extensive due process that has been put in place to hold back false cases of sexual assault from moving forward.
If HB 2 and HB 605 pass with Spencer’s changes, they could make it possible for Jane Doe to win her lawsuit against USA Gymnastics. With the organization’s only defense to be the amount of time that passed since the assault, the updated Hidden Predator Act would hold it liable no matter the amount of time that passed as long as she can prove gross negligence.
“Organizations don’t put in policies and procedures to protect children. Pedophiles know where children are. They don’t hide in alleys trying to grab little Suzy or little Johnny anymore. That’s why we call it the Hidden Predator Act,” Spencer said. “Organizations have a duty to care for children better. They need to start waking up and asking the hard questions.”