Commentary: Open the courthouse to child sex abuse survivors

San Antonio Express-News [San Antonio TX]

March 24, 2023

By Christa Brown, For the Express-News

A proposed bill, now pending in the Texas Legislature, could bring a measure of justice to many survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

As introduced by state Rep. Ann Johnson, a Democrat from Harris County, House Bill 206 would allow a person who was sexually abused as a child to bring a civil lawsuit “at any time” to recover for injuries arising out of the abuse.

If the bill is passed, the law would apply retroactively, effectively reforming archaic statutes of limitation to give child sex-abuse survivors access to the civil justice system, even if their cases would have been time-barred under prior law.

This would bring Texas law in line with current knowledge about the effects of childhood sexual abuse. Inherent to the trauma is a silencing effect that causes many victims to delay disclosure. Often, victims are well into adulthood before they begin talking about what was done to them. The average age of a person coming forward with a report of childhood sexual abuse is 52.

The law must change to reflect this reality of delayed disclosure.

The current law is unjust because it bars child sex abuse victims from the courthouse for no fault of their own. By the time they become psychologically capable of dealing with their abuse, the deadline for filing a legal claim has often already passed. As someone who was sexually abused as a Texas church girl, I can tell you that, even though the assaults happened more than 50 years ago, I would still appreciate the possibility of pursuing justice.

Not only would House Bill 206 allow a path toward justice for individual child sex-abuse survivors, it would also serve the greater public good in three important ways.

• Preventing abuse: When claims of child sex abuse are brought into the courthouse, child predators long hidden can be brought into the public light, so that other children are better protected and abuse is prevented.

• Shifting costs: When child sex-abuse survivors bring civil lawsuits, it helps alleviate the individual costs and the societal costs of child sex abuse by shifting the costs from victims and taxpayers to those who caused the harm. According to Child USA, a think tank dedicated to child abuse prevention, the average lifetime cost of being sexually abused as a child is $830,928 per victim.

• Fostering deterrence: When civil lawsuits are brought, they can help deter unconscionable conduct. They can bring consequences, not only to the many child predators who evade the criminal justice system, but also to child-serving institutions that fail to adequately prioritize the safety and protection of children.

With the 2019 “ Abuse of Faith ” series, the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle were instrumental in spotlighting one such institution, the Southern Baptist Convention, whose practices effectively allowed child sex abusers to quietly move from church to church.

That series helped to prod an independent investigatory report, which found that, for decades, Southern Baptist leaders had routinely stonewalled sexual abuse survivors and had allowed even convicted child molesters to continue in ministry. Finally, in the face of media pressure, the SBC’s national headquarters released a secret list, which it had been keeping some 15 years, naming hundreds of church leaders and documenting account after account of sexual assaults, all “ neatly organized in spreadsheet boxes ” and “shrouded from the public eye for years.”

Texas held more of those secretly listed abusers than any other state.

This is just one example of the kind of institutional conduct that the passage of House Bill 206 could help deter. Lawsuits bring consequences, and consequences foster change.

It’s time for Texas to join the nationwide movement for statute of limitations reform. House Bill 206 is good for child sex-abuse survivors and good for the public.

Christa Brown, a retired Texas attorney, is a longtime advocate for child-safety reforms in the Southern Baptist Convention and the author of “This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and his Gang.”