Child abuse is Marci Hamilton’s Goliath

Marci Hamilton, Fels Institute of Government Professor of Practice, has faced down institutional child abuse for decades—and she is just getting started.

Marci Hamilton, Fels Institute of Government Professor of Practice, has waged a career-long effort to protect and find justice for child victims of abuse, whether the crimes are current or decades old. She is the author of “Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children,” which advocates for the elimination of child sex-abuse statutes of limitations, and “God vs. the Gavel: The Perils of Extreme Religious Liberty,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. She has submitted expert testimony, advised legislators in every state where significant reform has occurred, and filed countless pro bono amicus briefs in the U.S. and state supreme courts for the protection of children. 

Marci Hamilton sits at a table beside large windows overlooking campus.
Marci Hamilton, Fels Institute of Government Professor of Practice. (Image: Omnia)

Hamilton was one of the first legal scholars to speak out publicly about the sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy. As a vocal and influential critic of extreme religious liberty, she has successfully challenged the constitutionality and applicability of laws that provide religious officials a loophole to shield themselves in the legal system. She was the lead constitutional litigator for the victims in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s bankruptcy proceedings, during which the Archdiocese argued that religious liberty shielded $50 million from the victims’ claims. Hamilton was victorious, and those funds were made available.

Challenging religious exemption, Hamilton’s team won the case on the ruling that RFRA was unconstitutional because it was beyond the power of Congress. “I was essentially the only law professor in the country who was very publicly saying that extreme religious liberty was wrong. Most of the law professors were on the other side,” says Hamilton.

An interesting trend occurred following the Supreme Court victory. Hamilton began to hear from child protection advocates, mayors, state attorneys general, and organizations like the National Association of Regulatory Agencies—parties that were all fighting against institutional child abuse.

In 2016, Hamilton returned to Penn in the role of Professor of Practice, a position designed to bring faculty expertise into the classroom, a valuable asset for students interested in advocacy. That same year, she launched CHILD USA, a nonprofit think tank dedicated to ending child abuse and neglect using comprehensive legal and social science research. The organization pursues a wide swath of initiatives. This includes the familiar-to-Hamilton statutes of limitations reform, but also the abuse and neglect of athletes, medical neglect, conversion therapy, family court reform, the handling of children’s rape kits, child marriage, and more.

This past March, along with her co-counsel attorneys Brian Kent and Jeffrey Fritz, Hamilton made history when she filed the first two lawsuits against the Church of Scientology for child sex abuse, brought “by two extraordinarily brave survivors,” Hamilton says.

In addition to her advocacy and research, Hamilton is still passionate about teaching. “In my Children and the Law class, I had a wonderful group of students, including a public school principal, an Army major, an education graduate student, and even a former worker in the foster care system,” she says. “There are such incredible insights to be had, and those insights inform my policy work. I just want to sit and speak with them all day.”

This story is by Blake Cole. Read more at Omnia.