Representative Jeff Leach unveils legislative plan to protect victims of sexual abuse

Photo courtesy of the Texas Tribune

Chair of the Texas House Judiciary Committee and Plano representative Jeff Leach previewed new legislation last week which he said would protect citizens from sexual abuse. The legislation comes after the founding pastor of Gateway Church, one of the most well-known churches in North Texas, resigned over a decades-old sexual assault accusation. According to Leach, the legislation he proposes would help hold people accountable in similar situations. 

Pastor Robert Morris was accused of abuse by Oklahoma woman Cindy Clemshire. Clemshire accused Morris of abuse in the 1980s while she was between the ages of 12 and 16. According to church spokesperson Lawrence Swincegood, the church was aware of a past inappropriate relationship. However, they did not know the age of the woman or how long the abuse lasted. Morris resigned from his position but is yet to be charged. 

Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

“The church has been defiled,” Leach said on Lone Star Politics. “Look, I’m a born-again believer. I love the bride of Christ. I want to protect the church. But the church, in many cases, like the pulpit at Gateway, has been defiled. We ought to be stepping up and turning over tables and speaking out and doing everything we can to protect victims.” 

Leach outlined the three proposals his committee will look into when legislators reconvene in January: raising the penalty for mandatory reporters who fail to disclose abuse, extending the statute of limitations and restricting non-disclosure agreements between abusers and their victims. Any amendment would need to be authorized by the entire Texas Senate, passed by the entire Texas House and signed by Governor Greg Abbott.

Texas does not have a statute of limitations for crimes involving child sex abuse. Thirty years is the limit in civil cases. Nevertheless, offenses must be prosecuted in accordance with the laws in effect at the time, as the Texas constitution prohibits the retroactive application of statutes of limitations. Thus, any modification would not affect any lawsuit brought against Morris.

According to Leach, a change should be made for upcoming cases. He believes that ensuring victims’ access to the legal system and avoiding unnecessary lawsuits may exist in harmony. He takes the side of the victims in that argument.

“Deferring and erring on the side of protecting victims and making sure our courthouse is open to them if they want to seek justice,” said Leach. “I don’t believe that justice should have an end date.”

All Texans are required by law to notify law enforcement of any suspected child abuse. Teachers, medical professionals, lawyers, daycare workers and church members are among the groups that the law expressly targets. In addition, information must be reported to the Department of Family and Protective Services or local or state police enforcement. Leach expressed his dissatisfaction with persons being aware of the Morris situation but failing to disclose it within 48 hours. In order to prevent a similar situation, Leach has the intention of increasing penalties for not reporting these types of crimes. 

Texas does have some legislature in place to protect sexual abuse victims and has attempted bills as well. Proposed House Bill 206, introduced by Representative Ann Johnson, was meant to remove the statute of limitations on child sex abuse claims, allowing more survivors to fight for damages from sexual assaulters and institutions that have disregarded or approved of abuse. This was meant to ensure that survivors’ access to justice is not terminated after a predetermined amount of time. This proposed bill died in the committee and was referred to the judiciary, never making it to law. In addition, the legislature created the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Task Force in 2019. It consists of several state agencies, public safety and medical institutions and advocacy groups.

While Texas does have legislature to protect victims after sexual abuse, Leach’s proposed legislation will also promote the prevention of such acts through penalties for people who do not report such abuse. 

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