‘Accountable for the wreckage of the past’: Kansans want full priest abuse report released

The Hutchinson News [Hutchinson, KS]

January 20, 2023

By Alice Mannette

For years, Susan Leighnor held a secret.

Decades after her abuse at age 10 by three priests in Hutchinson, the memories of their face’s came back to her. She remembered their smiles, their voices and their malicious behavior.

On Jan. 6, when the synopsis of the report by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation came out, she once again felt like she was silenced. A few years ago, she finally opened up and spoke with KBI agents, sensing it was the right thing to do. She was hopeful a full report would be released.

“I felt like my little 10-year-old and my 12-year-old self finally told somebody in authority and something’s going to happen,” Leighnor said. “And nothing happened.”

Although the report was a start, naming 188 clergy who are suspected of abuse, the alleged abuser’s names were not released; neither was the location at which the events occurred.

“I think that they (KBI) went through with good intentions, and I think their intentions are still good,” said Michael McDonnell, communications manager of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “I just think that there’s more detailed information that’s going to be beneficial to the community, as well as survivors.”

Seeing the names of the locations where the abuse happened, McDonnell said, may trigger memories for victims who have been sitting in silence or parents who may have seen or suspected or known something. Although the age of remembering the abuse is lessening, the average age, McDonnell said is 52.

Why children don’t report abuse

Like Leighnor, Cecelia Simon sat in silence for years. Simon, who lived in a compound when she was in elementary school and middle school, was continually abused by juvenile delinquents from lockdown that were placed in a private agency in central Kansas, where she alleges, they raped and tortured her. She too suppressed her memories for decades, but when they came out, she too went to KBI.

Although Simon was not abused by the clergy, she said some turned a blind eye to what was happening to her.

“I couldn’t go to the cops,” Simon said. “Because the cops always brought me back. Nobody ever questioned, ‘why is this little girl running away from home?'”

The abuse went on for years. Simon remained silent. She tested the waters, saying she told a church worker about a priest giving young boys alcohol. She was brushed off and told she could not be trusted. After that, she shut down.

Leighnor from the beginning knew she could not tell anyone, like so many others, she was told by the priests, her alleged abusers, if she told, she would go to hell.

“So they had already brainwashed me as to what hell was like, and nobody wanted to go to hell; it was fire and brimstone forever,” Leighnor said. “He (one of her abusers) also told me that, and I learned this in Catholic school, if you were talking to a priest, you are talking to God here on earth. He also told me to remember that he was God. He’s God here on earth.”

Although KBI referred 30 cases to prosecutors, many others were not referred, mainly, like in the case of Leighnor, the alleged molestation dates back to the 60s, and all the priests are dead. One of the priests who Leighnor alleged molested her, the Rev. William Wheeler, is listed on the Diocese of Wichita site that claims “the Diocese of Wichita has found to have substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of a minor against them.”

Wheeler served at St. Elizabeth Hospital (1960-1963) and the Church of the Holy Cross in Hutchinson (1967-1973).

Wheeler, like the other priests who Leighnor named, died. But, she said, it is important for others to know they are not alone. She hopes they will come forward.

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Kansas Statute of Limitations

Because of Kansas’ statute of limitations, Leighnor and Simon cannot get their day in court. Kansas Rep. Cindy Holscher drafted a Statute of Limitations bill. It never made it to the floor for a vote. She will try again to introduce a similar bill to lengthen the time a survivor can report a case of abuse.

“It (SB420) had a hearing in the House Judiciary Committee. And there are some intricacies and some tricky language and some of our statutes in regard to childhood sexual violence, so the bill was referred to what’s called the judiciary council to give their recommendations on how to proceed,” Holscher said.

They redrafted the bill and then COVID hit.

“And then two years ago, I was in the Senate at that point, and redrafted the bill and introduced it, and unfortunately, the chair of the Judiciary Committee would not do a hearing,” Holscher said.

But Holscher has not given up. She plans to once again introduce a bill to increase the statute of limitations for childhood molestation survivors. However, unlike many other states, Kansas has an extra layer on its constraints. Any activity before 1984 cannot be touched in court — for now.

“I have had so many different attorneys review our statutes and make recommendations (to change it),” she said. “There’s a thing called the statute of repose. That’s our language in our Constitution, and I have struggled to find out how it got there. It essentially puts a wall as far as how far back you can go on some of these claims.”

Holscher has heard the ‘easiest’ way to address this (wall) is to call for a constitutional amendment.

“That would require two thirds majority in the House and the Senate, and then would go to the people on a ballot,” she said.

Although this would take time, it could help victims like Simon and Leighnor. Another option, which some states have followed, is opening a ‘window’ of time in which these cases can be heard.

For survivors who witnessed their abuser’s conviction, they want to help others who were abused. Olympic gymnast Terin Humphrey of Kansas City, who spoke out against Larry Nassar, her abuser, said Kansas needs to change its laws. Nasar was convicted of assaulting young women and girls.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that people heal from trauma differently,” Humphrey said. “When people say ‘Oh if that were to happen to me, I would have said something immediately.’ But children do not think that way. This may take days, it may take years, and in some cases, they may not even want to ever come forward.”

Similar to the other two women, Humphrey was not surprised that the names of the perpetrators were not released.

“In short, I will say I’m shocked, but I’m not surprised,” she said “(Some) Big entities seem to have a niche on hiding all forms of abuse. From abuse, to lying, to manipulating, gaslighting, hiding, etc.”

When this report brief was released, all three women relived their pain. But this time they felt anger.

“When I saw that KBI report, and the way that it was handled coming out on a Friday night like that, I was first shocked, and then I went to being afraid for Kansas people, and then I went through to anger, and I was like, no, that is a mockery that is a disgrace to Kansas law enforcement,” Simon said. “They just wanted it to go away.”

McDonnell from SNAP holds out hope KBI will release the report, redacting the victims.

“We call on the state legislature to to do something, to do the next right thing, and to allow that window to open so that others can come forward,” he said.

And although, he said the numbers have decreased, they still see the pushback — “them saying it’s a thing of the past.”

“They (the church) want to get beyond this epidemic so badly, but the only way they can do that is if they are accountable for the wreckage of the past,” McDonnell said.

SNAP has support groups to help anyone abused by clergy of any denomination. KBI can be reached at (785) 296-8200. The national sexual abuse hotline is (800) 656-4673. In Reno County, call BrightHouse at (620) 663-2522. In Salina, the number to call is (800) 874-1499 to reach the Domestic Violence Association of Central Kansas.