After weeks of waiting, Kansas survivors of child sex abuse eager for legislative hearing

Kansas Reflector [Topeka, KS]

March 22, 2023

By Sherman Smith

Every week since the beginning of the legislative session in January, survivors of childhood sexual abuse have staffed a table near the main public entrance to the Statehouse.

Every week, they have met with senators and representatives, working toward a compromise on legislation that would remove barriers for other survivors who seek justice through criminal charges and civil litigation.

Every week goes by without a hearing on the bill.

They are frustrated.

This week, on Thursday, a Senate panel finally plans to hold a hearing on legislation that remains a work in progress. Senate Bill 317 would establish a legal climate in Kansas where there is no statute of limitations on criminal charges, and where survivors could seek damages through civil cases until they turn 31 years old. Under current law, children who are victimized by coaches, priests, family members and others must file a lawsuit before the age of 21.

Four survivors — Kim Bergman, Tess Ramirez, Lesa Patterson-Kinsey and Joe Cheray — have been prominent fixtures in the fight for legal reforms, although they are joined behind the scenes by dozens of others who long for change. The four spoke with Kansas Reflector on Tuesday about their concerns with delays in getting a hearing on the bill, and about the impact of their work.

They appear at their table armed with educational materials, images of themselves as children, and courage. Frequently, others approach them to share stories of their own traumatic experience.

After spending a day at the Statehouse, Ramirez said, she basically sits on her couch and does nothing the next day “because it’s so emotionally tolling that I’m exhausted.”

“It is triggering. It’s hard — still in therapy, probably will be there forever to process these things,” Ramirez said. “But in those moments, you just want to be there to support that person that’s telling the story, because you may be the first person that they’ve told. So in that moment, you’re just a sounding board, and you just try to provide them a little bit of comfort.”

Bergman said it is “sad and frustrating that people are having to come to us in this situation.”

“We can’t even get a hearing to be able to help people like this,” Bergman said. “So, you know, I just — I don’t know. I’ve kind of gotten to the frustrated point that I just want a hearing. I want an opportunity to be able to share our stories.”

Bergman said she was trying to tame her frustration because she has been encouraged by Senate President Ty Masterson’s willingness to negotiate.

Past efforts to change Kansas law received hearings in the House but met resistance in the Senate. This year, House leaders made it clear that any legislation would need to clear Senate hurdles before House consideration.

Those hurdles include educating lawmakers on the reality that survivors may not be ready to disclose their abuse until they are, on average, in their 50s. Some lawmakers simply aren’t comfortable talking about the subject. There are misconceptions about false allegations. Police were concerned about being blamed for not gathering evidence in old crimes.

Then there are discreet lobbying efforts by the Catholic Church, which could be vulnerable to lawsuits from years of clergy abuse confirmed by a Kansas Bureau of Investigation report released in January.

Chuck Weber, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, declined to talk about proposed legislation for this story.

“Not to you, I’m not going to talk,” Weber said. “You are an unfair reporter. You are biased.”

Survivors had hoped to remove the statute of limitations entirely, but they agreed to extend the age by 10 years as part of the negotiations in recent weeks.

Still, Cheray said, it felt like lawmakers were trying to “run out the clock” on the session.

“This has been our whole life, having to fight to be heard,” Cheray said. “We are making strides. We are a lot further now than we were, say, four years ago.”

Sen. Usha Reddi, a first-term Democrat from Manhattan, has worked to advance legislation on behalf of survivors. She testified in support of similar legislation in 2020, when she revealed her father had abused her as a child. At the age of 53, she had been able to pursue criminal charges in Virginia.

In an interview for this story, Reddi said she and her brother went to her mother’s house when her father was getting arrested, thinking they would take her home to live together.

“First thing she said is, ‘Get your dad out of jail.’ So that’s when you know, wow, if I did this when I was 8, 9 years old, it would not have been very different,” Reddi said. “So I think if that’s happening within my own family, how does the Legislature address any of this?

“They still make the person coming out feel like, well, why are you doing it now? What are you going to gain from it? Are you going to write a book? How are you going to get rich? They see all these ulterior motives, even if there isn’t any. And I think that’s what pushes the actual conversation aside.”

Reddi said the KBI’s clergy abuse report, which identified 188 suspects of “criminal acts,” helped create momentum behind legislation this session because it showed widespread abuse. She has tried to make it clear that this isn’t just about clergy — children can be preyed upon by coaches, teachers and others.

“They’re not creepy old men in the woods,” Reddi said. “These are people that we work with and trust. And I think that’s the piece that people can’t get past.”

Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, said it has been difficult to build support from lawmakers for the bill.

“This isn’t necessarily a topic that people are comfortable talking about,” Holscher said. “We’ve had to bring it forward, the survivors coming every week talking to legislators.”