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Gymnasts testify; lawmakers won't name abuse bill lobbyists

Gymnasts testify; lawmakers won't name abuse bill lobbyists

May 14th, 2019 by Associated Press in Texas News

Former gymnasts Jordan Schwikert, left, Amy Baumann, center, and Tasha Schwikert, right, take part in a hearing about the statute of limitations child sex abuse victims have to sue their abusers, Monday, May 13, 2019, in Austin, Texas. In Texas, lawmakers quietly removed a bill's provision allowing child sex abuse victims to sue institutions and are now shielding the very groups that lobbied them to do so.

Photo by Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas — Former U.S. national team gymnasts backing a Texas bill that would allow victims of sexual abuse more time to sue in civil court on Monday urged the state's lawmakers to restore a key provision allowing those individuals to sue institutions.

A push to expand the statute of limitations laws for child sex abuse victims is underway in statehouses nationwide as an onslaught of lawsuits are roiling institutions like the Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America and USA Gymnastics. In Texas, lawmakers quietly removed a bill's provision allowing victims to sue institutions and are now shielding the groups that lobbied them to do so.

Thirty-seven states have introduced measures in 2019 to extend the amount of time victims of sexual abuse have to file lawsuits, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. But Texas is the only state where lawmakers are trying to bar victims from taking on institutions.

Texas state Rep. Craig Goldman declined to say which groups or lawmakers lobbied for the change in his legislation, noting "it's all a matter of crafting the best piece of legislation that you want to see pass."

"It's a matter of 'Look, I'm a business owner. If one of my employees does something, am I supposed to be held accountable for something they've done individually?'" Goldman said. "I personally don't think so. So that's really what it came down to. You blame institutions, businesses for things that individuals who work for them do."

But advocates for victims say the move would further allow institutions to ignore or cover up abuse, and deter them from putting policies and safeguards in place that keep children safe.

"The way the (bill) has been amended is a way for the Catholic Church and other organizations to carve themselves out and really prevent themselves from having to face any accountability and liability," said Michelle Simpson Tuegel, an attorney who represents former Olympic and U.S. national team gymnasts who were abused by Larry Nassar at a Huntsville, Texas, facility.

Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, where Nassar worked as a sports physician for decades, have been sued by more than 250 girls and women. Nassar pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, on top of a 60-year federal term for possessing child pornography.

The change in the bill mobilized former Olympic and U.S. national team gymnasts abused by Nassar to testify at a public hearing on Monday for a new Senate version that would allow victims to sue institutions.

Sponsor state Sen. Kirk Watson said the bill is about survivor empowerment, justice and prevention, and noted that "all three are dependent on accountability not just for the individual child molester, but also for any organization that hid any abuse."

Watson did not know which groups lobbied to keep institutions out of the former version of the bill.

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Associated Press.

The House passed the original bill unanimously earlier this month. The revised measure would allow child sexual abuse victims to bring a civil lawsuit against their abuser and institutions up to 30 years after their 18th birthday.

Under current Texas law, there is no statute of limitations to seek criminal charges against someone for child sexual abuse. But those sexually abused as children currently have 15 years to file those claims in civil court after turning 18.

Sex abuse settlements have financially strained institutions in recent years. The Catholic Church has paid out billions of dollars to settle U.S. clergy abuse cases while USA Gymnastics filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year in an effort to reach settlements. The Boy Scouts of America is now also considering a bankruptcy petition.

Tasha Schwikert, a former Olympic gold medalist who was sexually abused by Nassar, said USA Gymnastics enabled Nassar to abuse athletes and sat on allegations after finding out.

"It was the toxic culture that allowed him to have a blueprint to be able to manipulate us and molest us," Schwikert said following her testimony Monday in Texas. "So they absolutely have to be held accountable because our parents and you guys are sending your children to these organizations and institutions and just believing and assuming that these people are protecting your kids when most of them aren't."

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