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Survivors testify in support of extending civil liability for child sex abusers

Survivors testify in support of extending civil liability for child sex abusers

May 13th, 2019 by Richard Lee / Texas Senate Media Services in Texas News

AUSTIN — Three former members of the U.S. women's national gymnastics team were among those who testified in favor of a bill that would give survivors of child sexual abuse more time to seek civil damages against their abusers — and the organizations that enable them.

Sisters Tasha and Jordan Schwikert and Alyssa Baumann were three of the hundreds of women who say they were sexually abused by Larry Nassar during the many years he served as a team doctor for USA Gymnastics. Some of these crimes were committed at the Karolyi Ranch, a world-famous training facility in Walker County, Texas.

"When they are ready, all survivors of sex abuse should be empowered to hold their abusers and the institutions where the abuse occurred responsible," said Baumann, a native of Plano who now competes in gymnastics at the collegiate level for the University of Florida. "USA Gymnastics could have prevented my abuse, but they failed to take previous allegations of Nassar's conduct seriously. They allowed him to continue to treat young women and girls for decades without any oversight, and now hundreds of women are coming forward with their stories of abuse."

The statute of limitations in Texas for civil liability in cases of child abuse under current law is fifteen years, starting when the survivor turns 18 years old, giving them until their 33rd birthday to file suit.

Advocacy groups say, however, that the average age that survivors come forward is between 48 and 52, long after they can seek damages. As the bill, HB 3809, came out of the House, it doubled the statute of limitations to 30 years, giving survivors until they turn 48 years old, but only for suits against abusers and not the organizations that may have covered for them.

When he became the bill's Senate sponsor, Austin Senator Kirk Watson said that survivors and advocates reached out to his office with profound concerns about the lack of this provision.

"They explained that we must not only hold individual child molesters accountable, but also the culpable organizations that enable them to abuse dozens or hundreds of children," he said.

Watson's version of the bill added language that would allow survivors to seek damages from groups that knew, or should've known, about sexual abuse within their organization but did nothing. Furthermore, it would allow a judge to award up to three times the compensatory damages sought if it can be proven that an organization concealed incidents of child abuse.

Nassar was eventually convicted for his crimes and is now serving a minimum of 100 years in prison, but those who testified Monday said that the organizations that turned a blind eye to accusations must also be held accountable.

"Exempting institutions from liability creates a world where the cycle of abuse can continue," said Jordan Schwikert. "We must also look at the institutions and what they have failed to do, accountability is the only path to real change and we must stand together to demand it."

Jordan and her sister, Tasha Schwikert, filed a lawsuit against USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic Committee last year, seeking damages for years of abuse they suffered while members of the national gymnastics team.

Once USA Gymnastics learned of the accusations, said Tasha, the organization didn't report them to authorities for five weeks, leading to more young women and girls suffering abuse.

"They declined to report the abuse because we were winning," she said. "We were winning world medals and Olympic medals, and winning sponsorships and medals were more important to them than protect[ing] us."

She asked committee members to help ensure that organizations report accusations when they learn of them, to fully vet those they hire to work with children and face consequences when they fail to protect the children under their supervision.

"We cannot allow enabler organizations off the hook," she said.

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