Gov. Kelly signs bill giving Kansas child sex abuse survivors more time to file lawsuits

Kansas City Star [Kansas City MO]

April 17, 2023

By Jonathan Shorman and Jenna Barackman

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly signed a bill Monday giving survivors of child sexual abuse more time to file lawsuits in a victory for victims and their advocates, who spent years demanding they have their day in court.

The new law will allow police to pursue criminal cases indefinitely and give survivors until they turn 31 to file a lawsuit, as well as three years after a criminal conviction. The Democratic governor signed the measure after the Republican-controlled Legislature unanimously approved it earlier this month.

“I am pleased that the legislature has unanimously passed this critical piece of legislation that will protect children and support victims and their families,” Kelly said in a statement. “This bill would not be possible without the tireless work of survivors across the state who fought for their voices to be heard. I thank them for their bravery.”

Advocates had initially sought the elimination of the statute of limitations for the civil and criminal statute of limitations, but the legislation extending the time frame was passed as a compromise with Republican leaders in the Senate. The bill still leaves a hard limit on civil lawsuits and will leave behind many survivors who lack the evidence for a criminal conviction but were not ready to report until late in life.

For years, survivors of abuse had tried – and failed – to advance changes to the state’s statute of limitations, which limited how long they had to sue. Numerous individuals who endured abuse as children came to the Capitol to share their stories at emotional, wrenching hearings only to watch the legislation fail to advance.

But bill supporters achieved a breakthrough this year as a result of a compromise with Senate GOP leadership. The Kansas Catholic Conference, which represents the Catholic bishops in the state, also lent its support.

Sen. Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the process was a “long road” to providing a balance between prosecuting those who perpetrate abuse while “respecting the constitutional rights of everyone.”

“We have heard your voices,” she said. “This is a big step toward bringing to criminal justice those who persecute the most horrific of crimes, and giving survivors additional opportunities to pursue their own remedies.”

Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat who championed the bill, called it “breakthrough legislation,” but emphasized that there was more work to be done.

“This is a first step that allows more victims to bring forward their cases,” she said. “That means we will get more predators off the street and protect more children, as well.” She said she will continue working to reform the statute of limitations for civil suits and expand look-back windows.

Susan Leighnor, a survivor who said she abused as a child by Catholic priests in the 1960s, said she wants Kansas to eliminate its statute of repose, which limits victims abused before 1984 from coming forward. A five-year, open-ended look-back window would also help in achieving justice for older claims, she said.

“This is a little glimmer of hope,” she said. “A step in the right direction. But we need to be able to go back further for civil cases.”

Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said the legislation, which received unanimous support, was a result of “behind-the-scenes work” from both sides of the aisle.

“Today shows what can be accomplished when we set aside the partisan labels and work together,” he said. “Thank you goes especially to the survivors who had the courage to speak up and fight for reform.”

During a press conference last month, Holscher said the passage of the legislation was especially necessary since other states have already lengthened their statute of limitations.

“Predators know where to go — where the laws protect them,” she said. “There are lots of titles we have here in Kansas. We like to be known for basketball, sunflowers. But we don’t want to be a sanctuary state for predators.”

The Star’s Katie Bernard contributed reporting

Jonathan Shorman is The Kansas City Star’s lead political reporter, covering Kansas and Missouri politics and government. He previously covered the Kansas Statehouse for The Star and Wichita Eagle. He holds a journalism degree from The University of Kansas. 816-234-4274