Kansas High Court refuses appeal of case accusing former Topeka priest of sexual misconduct

WIBW [Topeka KS]

April 22, 2022

By Sarah Motter

The timeline of alleged abuse by a Topeka priest at St. Matthew’s parish in the 1980s could have a significant impact on an ongoing child sexual abuse case.

In the matter of Appeal No. 121,768: John Doe H.B., an individual v. M.J., Individually and in His Capacity as a Priest at St. Matthew Parish, and The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas, a Kansas Not for Profit Corporation,the Kansas Supreme Court says it will try the archdiocese in the case but denied a motion for summary judgment by the defendant. Further, it said it would need the discovery to establish a timeline of the crimes which would decide what crimes could be tried due to Kansas law.

Court records indicate H.B. filed a lawsuit in August 2017 which alleged a priest – M.J. – sexually abused him in Shawnee County when he was a child – over 30 years ago. He sought damages from the priest and the Archdiocese which employed him for failing to train and supervise the priest, for failing to protect him, and for attempting to cover the crimes up.

H.B. told the court the abuse happened to him between the ages of 9 and 12 – or between 1980 to 1984. He said it had begun when he was an altar boy in fourth grade. When asked if the abuse officially ended when he was 12, H.B. replied, “oh, no. It still continued until I was in the eighth grade.” He said the abuse had continued through his time as a server at St. Matthew’s, a role which H.B. had performed until he got caught sneaking sacramental wine in eighth grade.

H.B. also told the court that M.J. had sexually abused him at the rectory at St. Matthew’s parish in Topeka, the Topeka YMCA and Athletic Men’s Club, as well as on road trips to other churches and to M.J.’s parents’ home.

“[M]ultiple priests and laypersons within the Archdiocese knew or should have known that [M.J.] was sexually abusing children, including [himself],” H.B. asserted in his petition.

H.B. also said the years of abuse had caused him to “develop various psychological coping mechanisms and symptoms of psychological distress, including great shame, guilt, self-blame, and depression [that rendered him] unable [to] discover that he was a victim of sexual abuse.” He also said he had repressed the memory until about the late fall of 2015 when news reports of sexual abuse by priests in Guam – where H.B. lives – made the news.

Kansas statutes require a plaintiff to bring forth a case no more than 8 years after the event caused harm, however, the statute creates an exception for those who have undergone sexual abuse. State law also allows a plaintiff to bring an action for childhood sexual abuse up to three years after the plaintiff turns 18 or three years after they discover injuries caused by childhood sexual abuse.

The Court said the combination of the two state laws permits the lawsuit as long as the abuse took place after July 1, 1984.

Court records indicate the Archdiocese had formally assigned M.J. as a priest at St. Matthew’s between July 1981 through June 1983 when he was transferred to a parish in Overland Park and Kansas City. While he had been assigned to another parish, H.B. noted that M.J. had continued to intermittently celebrate or help with Mass at St. Matthew’s and with various matters at his high school.

Before discovery was complete or went to trial, the Court said the defendants, M.J. and the Archdiocese, filed motions for summary judgment. They claimed the crimes could not be tried due to the expired timeline.

The Wyandotte Co. District Court denied these motions and the Court of Appeals took the case on appeal and affirmed the lower court’s decision.

The Supreme Court then granted the defendants’ petition for review.

The Court said it affirmed both the Court of Appeals and the Wyandotte Co. District Court and remanded the case back for further proceedings.

Writing for the Court majority, Justice Eric Rosen further noted the discovery will be necessary to establish the time frame of the abuse and the time frame for the discovery of the abuse. He said these will ultimately be questions of fact for decision in the district court and the answers to the questions will govern whether H.B. filed his petition in time to preserve his cause of action.

The Court held that H.B.’s petition was sufficient to include dates after July 1, 1984, and it was a question of fact when the abuse finally stopped and when he discovered the resulting harm.

The Archdiocese also argued the claims against it were time-barred because the child abuse exception applies only to suits against individuals, not suits against institutions.

The Court rejected this argument and held that the statutory exception focuses on the harm that came from abuse – not on perpetrator liability.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Caleb Stegall, joined by Chief Justice Marla Luckert, agreed with the outcome but disagreed with the majority’s decision that state law contains no requirement that a defendant must have been the active perpetrator of the abuse.

The concurring justices said they would find the statute ambiguous but would hold the Archdiocese potentially liable under a theory of aiding and abetting.