Texas needs to catch up to the neuroscience of delayed disclosure in child sexual abuse cases

San Antonio Express-News [San Antonio TX]

February 9, 2023

By Elaine Ayala

[Via MSN]

Every group imaginable participates in a Capitol Day. Civil rights advocates, educators, unionists, nurses, hairdressers, cities and counties, you name it, every agenda gets its day.

Their purpose is to bring attention to bills under consideration by the Texas Legislature.

Sometimes they get news coverage, but mostly they get a chance to meet with specific legislators to press their agendas.

These ordinary events aren’t as easy for survivors of child sexual abuse, even those who are now adults.

It’s difficult to come forward and reporting such crimes is still rare, especially for those victimized by members of the clergy.

It can take years, even decades, for them to talk about it.

That any victims of child sexual abuse are gathering in front of the Capitol next week is a minor miracle.

But a group of Texans, including a San Antonio contingent of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, will meet Wednesday in Austin to garner support for two bills — one in the Texas House, the other in the Senate — that will lift statutes of limitations so that victims can file civil lawsuits whenever they’re ready to pursue them.

In 2019, civil statutes of limitations were extended from 15 years to 30 years past the age of 18. That means someone age 48 can sue their alleged abuser and the institution in which that abuser served.

But that law applied only to future cases and contained no retroactive clause, leaving out so many survivors.

SNAP and other organizations say the average age of disclosure for a child sexual abuse survivor is 52, which means they have no legal recourse in civil court.

I’ve interviewed survivors of child sexual abuse. They’ve been in their 50s, 60s and 70s. They cried about finally being able to talk about being molested or raped and the fear they endured as children.

One is seared into memory. He waited until after his mother’s death because she was the person who insisted he become an altar server, putting him on a path with his abuser.

Retroactive bills won’t just help older victims. They’ll hold institutions accountable and protect children today.

Coming forward will remain difficult.

Those who file lawsuits will have to have “a case with merit,” said Patti Koo of the San Antonio SNAP chapter. “You need witnesses and you need evidence.

“The cases are not going to flood the court system,” Koo added. “But it’s the right thing to do for survivors.

“If it takes three decades, so be it,” she said. “Let the survivor have the time to heal.”

Neuroscience backs up delayed disclosures.

In adulthood, victims of child sexual abuse still deal with guilt, self-blame, fear and shame. Koo said that often, children may initially report the abuse but aren’t believed. Some are told not to say such things about an adult, especially a priest or pastor, she said.

Victims suffer from depression, PTSD, anxiety, autoimmune diseases and substance abuse. They’re at risk for suicide. SNAP says victims aren’t functional, let alone able to file a lawsuit “in a timely manner.”

Twenty-four states have passed similar laws, and 15 have eliminated all civil statutes of limitations for some or all child sex assault claims.

Critics may point to frivolous lawsuits. Child USA says there is no evidence of that. A new law in New York state, population 19 million, resulted in about 10,000 cases.

The problem isn’t overreporting or false reporting but underreporting.

“People think civil cases are only associated with money,” Koo added. “But it’s about being able to subpoena records, and we know that the best record keeper in the world is the Catholic Church.”

“It’s about accountability,” she said. “It’s not just about the predator, but the institution that allowed the abuse and enabled it.”

Koo’s biggest fear is giving survivors of child sexual abuse false hope. “There’s always a risk we’ll fail.”

Survivors will gather from 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday on the south steps of the Capitol.

State Rep. Ann Johnson, a Democrat from Harris County and a former chief human trafficking prosecutor, filed House Bill 206 on the first day of the legislative session.

It will eliminate all statutes of limitations and allow civil lawsuits against alleged child sexual abusers and the institutions associated with them.

State Sen. Pete Flores, a Republican who lives in Pleasanton, filed the same bill in the Senate this week. It’s SB751.

The San Antonio group is 10 members strong. They’re not experienced in politics, just working together for the long haul.

Among them is a Catholic deacon still in service to the church, a young mother who grew up in a strong Catholic family and retired medical professionals who encountered child sexual abuse survivors as adults.

They dealt with women who refused to get Pap smears and men who wouldn’t have colonoscopies because of the trauma they experienced as children.

They also know the work will go on long after their Capitol Day.