Apr 15, 2022

Texas Supreme Court rules against Southern Baptist leader accused of rape, a win for survivors

Robert Downen, Staff writer
Houston Chronicle 
April 12, 2022

In a consequential ruling that legal experts say will give Texas sexual abuse survivors more power to sue attackers and the institutions that protect them, the Texas Supreme Court has allowed a lawsuit to go forward in which a Houston man alleges he was repeatedly raped by influential Southern Baptist figure and former Texas Appeals Court judge Paul Pressler. 

At issue is Texas’ civil statute of limitations, the time period that victims have to file a lawsuit. In 2017, Duane Rollins sued Pressler in Harris County, claiming the longtime conservative political and religious leader first began to molest him when Rollins was a member of Pressler’s youth group at various Houston churches in the early 1980s. Pressler and his lawyers denied the allegations and moved to have the case thrown out of court, arguing that Rollins had filed his claims too late. 

Rollins, however, said in court papers that trauma from the assaults led him to develop drug and alcohol addictions and suppress those memories until 2016, when they were revealed while undergoing psychiatric treatment in prison, where he was serving a sentence for driving while intoxicated. He argued that the statute of limitations should begin from when he realized he was the victim of the alleged sexual assault, not from when the alleged assault took place. 

The state’s high court agreed last week and ordered the case be sent back to Harris County district court. Legal experts said the ruling is significant because it opens the door in Texas for people who were sexually abused as children to sue both attackers and institutions that mishandled or concealed the abuses years or decades later. 

“It’s a massive and important step forward,” said Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and expert on child sexual abuse who was the first person to publicly accused now-imprisoned USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of abuse. “It shows a willingness to bring our justice system in line with what we know about sexual assault.” 

Lawyers for Pressler did not respond to a request for comment. 

Decades of neuroscience research show that about one in three child sex abuse victims suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and that many — particularly those abused by clergy — can develop a sort of Stockholm syndrome that prevents them from recognizing themselves as victims for years, if not decades. The average child abuse victim does not come forward until after their 50th birthday, long after it’s possible to file a lawsuit, according to research by ChildUSA, an advocacy group for statute of limitations reforms. 

“One thing we now know about sexual assault is that the PTSD and mental neurobiological injury often make it impossible for survivors to fully remember what’s taken place or to even be in the position where they’re healthy enough to come forward,” said Denhollander, who has advised the Southern Baptist Convention and other religious groups on sexual abuse policies. “And that closes the halls of justice to many survivors.” 


For decades, experts and abuse survivors have called on state legislatures to reform civil statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse, saying awards or settlements from lawsuits often are the only way for survivors to afford adequate medical care for their attacks. Moreover, experts say, lawsuits can shed light on institutional failures and force scrutiny and settlements that prompt change. 

“This is the only way we’ve been learning the facts” about institutions that conceal abuse, said Marci Hamilton, a longtime first amendment scholar and founder of ChildUSA. “It’s not just about one individual getting money — this is the only way the public really knows where children are at-risk because parents are often denied that information.” 

In recent years, many states have broadened victims’ rights in criminal courts. But attempts to give them the same rights in civil courts have faced well-funded opposition from groups such as the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America, both of which have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in abuse lawsuits. They and other opponents claim such reforms would spark a flood of litigation for decades-old abuses that they say can’t be proven or disproven. 

Research from ChildUSA, however, shows that states that have relaxed civil statutes of limitation have not seen notable upticks in lawsuits. That’s because pursuing lawsuits is often expensive and require survivors to be re-victimized, with no guarantee of a winning outcome, Hamilton said. Most abuse lawsuits end long before depositions and document requests are even possible. 

In his suit, Rollins also accused the Southern Baptist Convention, prominent SBC churches in Houston and other prominent religious and political figures - including former Harris County GOP Chairman Jared Woodfill - of helping conceal the alleged abuses, which they deny. Lawyers for the other defendants declined or did not respond to requests for comment. 

A 2019 investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News, prompted by Rollins’ lawsuit against Pressler, found nearly 400 Southern Baptist church leaders and volunteers were criminally charged with sex crimes since 1998. They left behind more than 700 victims, nearly all of them children at the time of their attacks. 

Since then, the SBC has passed numerous reforms, vowed to work with state legislatures to reform statues of limitations and, last year, commissioned a third-party investigation into two decades of allegations that top leaders mishandled and concealed abuses. That report will become public next month.

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