Kansas sex abuse survivors’ efforts bear fruit with a hearing. But that’s just the beginning.

Kansas Reflector [Topeka, KS]

March 23, 2023

By Clay Wirestone

Kansas owes its kids.

It owes them protection. It owes them a better future. For those who have been wronged through sexual abuse, it owes them justice.

With a hearing Thursday, the Kansas Legislature has finally — after years of delay — inched toward recognizing that fact. At 10:30 a.m., the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on Senate Bill 317, which eliminates the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions of child sexual abuse. It also extends the deadline for pursuing civil action by 10 years, among other changes to state law.

At a news conference Wednesday afternoon formally announcing the hearing, Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, detailed the bill and a bit of the process.

“We are very excited to get to this point, to have a bill hearing and work to move this bill forward,” she told reporters. “Getting to this point has been a somewhat arduous journey in the respect that we have a survivor group that has been coming almost every week to meet with legislators. And the thing that has happened over the past couple of months is that they’re taking the time to really educate our legislators about statute of limitations and about things like delayed disclosure.”

Impressed and enraged

Kansas Reflector editor Sherman Smith wrote a powerful story about those survivors and that table. I tagged along during his meeting with survivors Tuesday.

At their table you can read fact sheets about childhood sexual abuse. You can see childhood pictures of some of the women sitting there. They watch passers-by in both the present and in the past, eyes following those who would ignore the need for justice. In a building bursting with slick pamphlets and polished graphics, their presentation sticks to homespun simplicity.

I was both impressed and enraged.

Those survivors on the ground, along with dozens more who have followed along in a less public capacity, have fought for their cause. They forced legislators to pay attention. They have, as a group, begun to make serious and important change for Kansas. You can’t help but be impressed.

But they also told Smith and myself about the emotional struggles of continually talking about their trauma and listening to other people sharing theirs. Tess Ramirez said that after a Statehouse shift she has to spend the next day on the couch “because it’s so emotionally tolling that I’m exhausted.”

Kansas lawmakers should do the right thing without requiring such sacrifices from survivors. You can’t help but be enraged at the indifference.

Justice for the future

These women don’t complain, however. They advocate for a greater good.

“For me, this is a huge step forward for survivors, and for myself,” said Joe Cheray at the Wednesday news conference.

She’s one of the group who has traveled regularly to the Statehouse.

“The only recourse I have is to help others that will and are going through the same thing, currently,” Cheray said. “And I want to make sure that future victims are protected, to get the justice that they deserve.”

Since former Attorney General Derek Schmidt released a report on child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy on Jan. 6, I have written six times about this issueSix. This column counts as the seventh, and my efforts don’t remotely compare with the survivors who roused themselves every week to share their cause. As someone who hadn’t spent a great deal of time thinking about the issue, I was stunned by the current state of Kansas law. So much work remains to secure justice. Even a simple start proved elusive until today.

I reached out to David Clohessy, a victim advocate and former executive director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, to ask why it took so much effort to begin this process.

“We’re adults,” he told me via email. “Our natural sympathy goes towards other adults. So some lawmakers fear — and can easily imagine — being wrongly accused of abuse, or of ignoring abuse, even though these types of allegations are extraordinarily rare. It’s much tougher for legislators to recall how scared, confused, helpless and easily manipulated by shrewd adult criminals they were as youngsters.”

No, the bill doesn’t do everything survivors wanted or that common sense suggests. The most important thing right now, after prolonged negotiations, is that it exists.

Bipartisan praise warranted

Let me be clear here, for those who may have missed instances in my earlier columns pointing out good deeds by Kansas Republicans. Members of the GOP in the Legislature have worked with Holscher and sex abuse survivors toward a bill that can become law. That’s entirely positive.

If that means praise for Senate President Ty Masterson and House Speaker Dan Hawkins, so be it. They managed to stop pandering to plutocrats for a few brief moments.

The hearing today doesn’t mark the end of the story, however.

It’s a beginning. We will see what happens to the bill as committee members listen to testimony. The legislation must then make its way out of committee and to the full Senate for consideration, before heading over to the House of Representatives. Gov. Laura Kelly would finally have to sign the bill into law.

The bill could be stopped or slowed at all of these stages. This simple piece of justice will have to survive a grim session dominated by debates over taxes and education funding, along with restrictions on transgender youths and abortion rights. If I had written this column at any other point in the past couple of months, I would be skeptical of the legislation’s chances.

For now, I watch and hope.

I watch the patience, dedication and bravery of survivors. I hope that lawmakers see it too, and recognize what they owe Kansas children — past, present and future.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.