KCUR (NPR affiliate) [Kansas City MO]
January 21, 2023
By Roxie Hammill
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests backed legislation from a Johnson County lawmaker aimed at holding more people accountable when clergy abuse children.
The road to reporting persistent sexual abuse by her gymnastics coach in 1998 was a long and difficult one for Kim Bergman of Shawnee.
She says at 12 years old she began dealing with the memories of her coach’s hands inside her swimsuit and under her shirt by writing letters to another coach.
“It was almost like a diary-type thing,” she said. “I held onto the letters for a while before sending them.”
Her mother came across the letters, though, and quickly got Kim into therapy, but the therapist wanted to wait until Kim could come to better terms before reporting to the police, she said.
She was 15 when they finally reported what had happened, but she said the district attorney at the time declined to prosecute.
By the time she was strong enough as an adult to try again, the legal time limit — the statute of limitations — to bring a case had run out.
“Unfortunately no one ever told me that there was a time clock for seeking justice for my abuse until it was already too late,” Bergman said at a press event outside the Johnson County Courthouse on Friday.
“When I was finally strong enough to go back to law enforcement as an adult, I was told that the statute of limitations had run out and that I would not be able to pursue justice,” she said.
Not only that, but the facts of her case couldn’t be used to support a later case brought by another of the same coach’s sexual abuse victims.
Statute of limitations
That time clock is what Kansas state Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, and Rep. Jeff Underhill, R-Junction City, hope to change with companion bills they plan to introduce next week in Topeka.
It’s an effort supported by Bergman and other abuse survivors, along with representatives of the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault and Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, all of whom appeared at the press event Friday.
The bills would remove the statute of limitations for all crimes associated with childhood sexual abuse.
As things now stand, the limit varies depending on the specific type of crime. And, since most people abused as children won’t talk openly about it until they are over 50, the bills would make it possible to prosecute crimes as far back as 1984.
That’s the farthest back it can go without changes to the state constitution, Underhill said.
Report: 188 clergy suspected
A similar bill died last year in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but Holscher said she has higher hopes for it this time around because of a recent Kansas Bureau of Investigation report into alleged sexual abuse in Kansas’ four Catholic dioceses as well as a breakaway sect.
The report, which took four years and covers incidents as far back as 1950, found 188 clergy suspected of acts that include rape, sodomy and aggravated indecent liberties with a child.
Thirty cases involving 14 clergy were referred for prosecution but none were charged, owing at least in part to the statute of limitations.
Holscher said the report may shock more people into action.
“I feel like there’s more legs now, honestly,” she said. “That probably is the biggest benefit of the KBI report coming out. It made people more aware of how widespread abuse is within our society, not just within the church but within pretty much anywhere where there are young, vulnerable children.”
Survivors share stories
Whitney Nigro Pritchard said the abuse she survived at the hands of her brother from the time she was 11 until she reached 14 has had a lasting impact on her mental health and ability to parent her own children.
Nigro Pritchard said she was stunned into silence by her father’s non-response when she reported it at age 20 and also by her family’s status in Leawood.
“I am from a prominent family of means. I held my secret out of shame but also to protect them, never considering they had not then and never intended to protect me. The cost to them was too great,” she said.
The statute of limitations made it impossible for her to press charges.
“The system that was supposed to protect me as a child failed. The family system that was supposed to protect me failed. The current statute of limitations continues to ensure I am not protected, but my abuser is,” she said.
Olympic medalist Terin Humphrey, 36, also spoke Friday, saying she was abused at age 15.
“I was embarrassed to come forward and talk about what happened. And I’m still not too comfortable talking about it,” she said.
“I tried for years and years to forget what happened, to move forward, to survive or whatever you want to call it but it’s not that easy,” she said.
In 2020, she alleged abuse by team physician Larry Nassar, who was eventually sentenced to 175 years in prison for decades of abuse.
Group: release the names
The KBI report also has caught the attention of SNAP, the national organization for survivors of abuse by priests.
David Clohessy, former SNAP director, said the report, which was begun under former Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, should have provided more information about the crimes and their alleged perpetrators.
Having that information would help heal survivors and keep kids safer, he said.
Clohessy asked through an open records request for the identification of all Catholic employees and volunteers who have been credibly accused of committing or concealing child sex crimes that were found in the KBI investigation.
“It’s especially important that these dangerous individuals are publicly exposed because as your predecessor’s report indicates, virtually all of them seem to have evaded criminal prosecution thanks in part to their complicit colleagues and supervisors and Kansas’ weak child protection laws,” said the organization’s letter to current Attorney General Kris Kobach.
Mike Foreman told reporters he was one of the survivors of abuse by a Catholic priest – an abuse he said happened when he was eleven but blocked out until he was 49 years old.
For some survivors, the chance to work toward change in the law has had a positive effect.
“For me it’s actually been incredibly healing,” said Bergman, now a social worker. “What happened to me is awful, but if I can use that to help someone else in the future, it’s all worth it.”
Her goal now is to protect children and find justice for survivors.
The perpetrator in Bergman’s case, David Byrd, pleaded guilty in 2009 to indecent liberties with a child and was sentenced to 30 months. But even though a lawsuit against him would probably cost more in legal fees than any award she might get, Bergman still intends to file one.
“It’s for the validation,” she said.