KANSAS CITY (KS)
Wichita Eagle [Wichita KS]
January 12, 2023
By Jonathan Shorman and Katie Bernard
More than 50 years ago, Susan Leighnor says she was raped in the 4th grade by priests at Holy Cross Catholic School in Hutchinson, Kansas.
All told, Leighnor says four priests in her childhood either sexually abused her or helped facilitate abuse against her, including the late William Wheeler, who appears on the Wichita diocese’s list of clergy with substantiated sexual abuse allegations against them. One of them told her she would go to hell if she spoke out, she said.
After repressing what happened for decades, Leighnor, now 67, says she has been recovering memories in recent years that paint a portrait of terrible trauma.
“I was furious that the Catholic Church could get away with this,” Leighnor, who lives in Colorado, said in an interview this week.
Kansas prevents nearly all survivors of childhood sexual abuse from filing lawsuits against their abusers or the institutions that enabled them. It’s one of the most restrictive states in the country when it comes to allowing victims to sue.
Kansas lawmakers will try again this year to repeal a state law that requires those abused as children to sue by the time they’re 21. The stories of those like Leighnor, who can take decades to recall and recognize what has happened, underscore the need to change the law, lawmakers say.
The KBI summary report, released Friday evening by outgoing Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, whose term ended on Monday, immediately attracted criticism from Leighnor and others who found it paltry. The 21-page report doesn’t list the names of accused priests, unlike official investigations in some other states, such as Pennsylvania.
Still, the KBI investigated 188 clergy members and identified more than 400 victims, demonstrating the scope of abuse that occurred in Kansas. More than 137 victims were interviewed and 30 probable cause affidavits were sent to prosecutors, though no criminal charges have been filed, in most cases because the accused priests are either dead or the statute of limitations on their crimes have run out.
In the wake of the report, legislation to lift the civil statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse will be re-introduced in the coming days, allowing those who endured abuse as children, whether by a priest, family member or other adult, to sue.
“I think in the past there were a number of people who thought, well, it’s three or four, you know, priests out there. We’re talking 188. So I think now people are like, OK, this scope is much larger than we thought,” said state Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat who has led efforts to lift the statute of limitations.
The legislation doesn’t extend to everyone. Leighnor, who says she was raped in 1967, won’t be able to sue. For arcane legal reasons, Kansas lawmakers can only lift the limit for abuse dating back to 1984.
Leighnor wants the Legislature to go further and let those abused before 1984 sue. Legal experts have said that is impossible because of the state’s statute of repose, which eliminates the right to sue in some circumstances. A 2020 report by the Kansas Judicial Council said courts would likely block such a change for violating the due process rights of defendants.
But for countless other survivors – and those who are abused in the future – the bill would allow them to seek compensation or at the very least force the Catholic Church to respond to their allegations in court.
“Even if it’s 1984 … that’s better than nothing,” Leighnor said.
IMPLICATIONS FOR GOLUBSKI ACCUSERS
The legislation extends beyond clergy abuse, with implications for women who have accused former Kansas City, Kan., police detective Roger Golubski of wrongdoing. One woman, identified in court documents as S.K., alleges Golubski abused her for four years starting when she was 13.
Attorneys for Lamonte McIntyre, who was wrongly convicted of a double murder, and his mother, Rose McIntyre, have claimed Golubski “victimized, assaulted, harassed” or tried to harm more than 70 women. Golubski faces federal charges accusing him of sexually abusing two women and depriving them of their civil rights; he has pleaded not guilty.
Adults generally have two years to sue over sexual assault in Kansas. The bills offered by Holscher and other lawmakers have so far sought only to lift the statute of limitations of child sexual abuse, but Holscher said that is “a first step in what will hopefully be a process whereby we eliminate” it completely.
Kansas is in the minority of states that have taken no action to expand the ability of those abused as children to sue. As of September, 18 states have eliminated the statute of limitations for child sex abuse claims and 24 states have revived claims or provided a window of time – sometimes called a “lookback” period – for lawsuits, according to Child USA, a Philadelphia-based think tank that tracks legislation related to child abuse.
Kansas’ deadline requires survivors of child sex abuse to sue by age 21 or three years from the date the person discovered the harm they suffered was caused by child abuse. The limit is among the strictest in the nation, according to Child USA. Nearly 30 states set their statute of limitation at age 35 or older as of 2021.
The low age limit can make it very difficult for survivors to bring lawsuits. In some cases, they may not yet fully recognize what happened to them. If the abuser is a relative, suing may be too difficult because of family dynamics or the survivor may be financially reliant on the perpetrator.
A 2014 study published in BMC Public Health of 1,050 child sex abuse victims in Germany found that the average age of reporting was 52 years old.
State Rep. Bob Lewis, a Garden City Republican, is an attorney who has represented abuse survivors in other states, including New York, which opened a lookback window in 2019 that closed in 2021.
“I have spoken to no Kansas survivor who was under the age of 21. Those claims are all gone,” Lewis said.
NEW HEARINGS POSSIBLE
Bills lifting the statute of limitations in Kansas have previously died in committee. In February 2020, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing that featured emotional pleas for action from survivors, including Leighnor.
One man who spoke at the hearing said he was abused in the ‘70s by the Rev. Finian Meis in the Kansas City area. The Catholic Church has listed Meis, who is deceased, among priests credibly accused. He was dismissed from priestly duties in 1986 and later defrocked.
“I denied God. I embraced Satan and prayed to do evil. And I was really good at it,” the man said, recounting a history of drug use, suicide attempts and violence following his abuse.
But the bill didn’t advance as the pandemic upended the legislative session. State Rep. Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican who chairs the committee, also voiced questions at the time about the effect of the statute of repose and referred the proposal to the Kansas Judicial Council.
By December 2020, the council had issued a report that the Legislature could lift the statute of limitations for lawsuits over abuse in 1984 and later. No action was taken on the legislation, either in the House or Senate, over the next two years, however.
State Sen. Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, didn’t schedule a hearing on the bill amid her unsuccessful campaign for state attorney general.
“Obviously, the protection and safety of children across the state of Kansas is important. It’s important to the Legislature, it’s important to parents, grandparents and families. So we are looking at something in that regard,” Warren said Tuesday.
Pressed for details, Warren said she had to get to a meeting.
Patton said Tuesday that he would schedule hearings for any legislation introduced on the topic. He signaled he was open to supporting a bill but remained circumspect about whether his committee would advance a measure.
“We obviously have a statute of limitations because evidence becomes old, testimony becomes less reliable and that’s why we have it,” Patton said. “But if there are all these people out there with claims that have been eliminated because of statute of limitations and there’s reliable evidence, then we need to figure out what we can do to move forward.”
At the February 2020 hearing, the Kansas Catholic Conference — which represents the Catholic bishops in Kansas — took a neutral stance on the legislation. Chuck Weber, the conference director, apologized to victims and called for a “survivor-centric” approach, while asking whether eliminating the statute of limitations represents such an approach.
On Wednesday, Weber said that while the Kansas Catholic Conference is unable to comment on legislation that has not yet been introduced, “justice for all victims harmed by insidious acts of sexual abuse—no matter the perpetrator or the circumstance—is a top priority of the Catholic Church.”
“We commend the courageous victims who have stepped forward with their stories. There is no time limitation on when the Catholic Church will offer services and support to clergy abuse victims,” Weber said in a statement. “We ask that any changes to current law in Kansas must first prioritize survivors, while still embracing the basic principles of fairness, justice, and due process.”
MANDATED REPORTING HAS ALSO FALTERED
Supporters of the measure have had difficulty advancing it, even as another reform has gotten much further in the legislative process. A bill to require ordained ministers to become mandated reporters of abuse was introduced during the 2019 legislative session and passed the Kansas Senate on a 39-0 vote.
But despite the unanimous Senate vote, the bill languished in the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, where it eventually died after two scheduled hearings were canceled.
Rebecca Randles, a Kansas City attorney who has represented hundreds of clergy sex abuse victims, singled out expanding the mandated reporter law as a way to help protect children from abuse.
“They are required to report in Missouri,” Randles said of clergy, “but not in Kansas.”
The KBI’s summary report explores the issue. While a wide range of individuals – including medical providers, teachers, public safety workers and others – must promptly report instances of suspected abuse, “church officials are typically under no obligation to do so,” the report says.
“A change to the law that would require them to report has been previously proposed, but met considerable resistance from the Catholic Church who argued it would affect the confessional’s sanctity and privacy,” the report says.
The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas has said it would support the measure if it contained an exemption for information learned by a priest during confession.
In 2019, the Rev. John Riley, the archdiocese’s vicar general, told the Legislature in written testimony that “the practical and historical application of our Archdiocesan policy has considered them to be mandatory reporters, with the exception of information learned by a priest under the unbreakable Seal of the Sacrament of Reconciliation.”
The Star’s Judy Thomas contributed reporting