Opinion

Feeble clergy sex abuse report exposes Schmidt’s sins. He betrayed his office and Kansas kids.

January 8, 2023 3:33 am
Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt answers questions

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt released the summary of an investigation into clergy sexual abuse on his last full day in office. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Now we know the true legacy of outgoing Attorney General Derek Schmidt: allowing likely sexual abusers of children to walk free.

According to a summary from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, more than 400 children in our state were sexually abused by Catholic clergy since 1950. While the KBI looked into nearly 200 clergy and opened 125 criminal cases, not a single person faced legal consequences. You can credit the statute of limitations and a tradition of stonewalling church bureaucracy.

Schmidt appears to have sat on the KBI report. Despite beginning in 2018, the inquiry’s results didn’t appear until after he lost a race for governor against Democrat Laura Kelly. His office buried the news on a Friday evening. Come Monday at noon, Schmidt will be out of office and no longer in a position to answer questions about those more than 400 abused children.

The attorney general’s hands were not tied.

He could have urged the Legislature to change the statute of limitations, extending it retroactively. He could have identified the priests accused in the KBI report. He could have made it clear that, whatever the limits on legal action, the Catholic Church of Kansas must answer tough questions about why it routinely protected priests who harmed young people.

He did none of those things.

Remember, Schmidt is a member of the Republican Party. Members of that same party have spent the past two years hyperventilating about “groomers” and potential child abuse. They have urged our state to pull out all the stops in protecting young people’s innocence. We must safeguard our children, they claim.

These concerned citizens have a prime opportunity here. Corrupted priests destroyed families. According to the same KBI summary, at least 15 Kansans committed suicide since 1960 because of clergy sexual abuse. The church, local law enforcement and the state failed them. Think of the good these Kansans could do in speaking up for those who weren’t just abused, but whose abuse was enabled by a corrupt hierarchy.

 

Kansas Bureau of Investigation director Kirk Thompson, center, said the ongoing inquiry into alleged abuse by Catholic clergy in Kansas prompted opening of 74 cases in 33 counties since initiated in February 2019. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Kansas Bureau of Investigation director Kirk Thompson, center, submitted the summary of the investigation to Schmidt. He is scheduled to retire from the KBI on Tuesday. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

‘Heart breaking’

In a statement released Saturday morning, the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas mouthed the calming platitudes one might expect. The church points to recent changes and reductions in reports of abuse.

“You cannot read this report without your heart breaking,” archbishop Joseph Naumann said.

Still, the KBI summary makes clear that the Catholic church in Kansas protected clergy rather than children. Its choices created decades of crisis. The dioceses euphemistically documented abuse, refused to report offenders, shuffled priests from one church to another and ignored their own policies. With due respect to the archbishop, all the breaking hearts in the world can’t put the lives of those kids back together.

So why didn’t Schmidt use the bully pulpit of his office to punish actual groomers?

He’s not a priest or bishop. He owes no allegiance to the Vatican. Why didn’t he raise the alarm throughout the state that actual child abuse was happening under the noses of every diocese in the state? Why didn’t he strive to make things right? Why didn’t he take every opportunity to express the outrage that comes from watching trusted adults exploit children?

I have some guesses.

First, the Catholic Church has spent millions upon millions of dollars in Kansas politics and has a lobbyist at the Statehouse. It backed the anti-abortion constitutional amendment this summer. Somehow, laws that would require clergy to become mandatory reporters of sexual abuse and change the statute of limitations on abuse have repeatedly failed in the Legislature.

“We do know the church has a great amount of power in Topeka,” Sen. Cindy Holscher told Reflector reporter Rachel Mipro in November. “So when you have an extremist majority — and that doesn’t mean that all of them are part of that particular church or anything — but there’s a lot of power there, and a lot of lobbying that goes on.”

In other words, Schmidt had practical political reasons to avoid targeting pedophile priests during his campaign.

So he didn’t.

Instead, his campaign falsely tied Gov. Laura Kelly to a Kansas City drag show. After no members of the Kansas news media would touch the story, Britain’s loathsome Daily Mail pounced. Perhaps if members of the clergy investigated by the KBI had performed instead of drag queens, Schmidt would have left the matter alone.

 

Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt joined former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gains in Overland Park to push for approval by the Kansas Legislature of a state law requiring public educational institutions to allow participation in sports programs based on the biological sex of the athlete at birth. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Republican gubernatorial candidate Derek Schmidt joined former University of Kentucky swimmer Riley Gains in Overland Park to push for approval by the Kansas Legislature of a state law requiring public educational institutions to allow participation in sports programs based on the biological sex of the athlete at birth. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

Duty betrayed

Here’s what I believe, after reading the KBI report and covering the fall campaign. I believe that Schmidt betrayed his duty as the state’s chief law enforcement officer. He ignored hundreds of raped and psychologically wounded children, along with dozens of abusive clergy, while pursuing power in Topeka. Their unimaginable pain didn’t rank against his obsessive desire for the governor’s office.

Even now, he covers for the church and the abusers it once protected.

The KBI summary released Friday doesn’t name any one of the 188 accused. It doesn’t include testimony from any one of the 400-plus victims. It doesn’t detail how churches and dioceses covered up abuse for decades. Authorities apparently reviewed 41,265 pages of information. Schmidt could have released it all. He could have set a national example of transparency and toughness.

He didn’t. That means we don’t hear from the victims. We don’t know the details of how they were harmed by those meant to offer them spiritual counsel. We don’t know how their lives were changed forever.

Schmidt has silenced them.

Perhaps new Attorney General Kris Kobach will show more of an appetite for pursuing truth and genuine restitution. He might not find such advocacy as exciting as suing President Joe Biden, but it could do far more good. Hope springs eternal, as the saying goes.

Back in October, Schmidt said government sponsorship of the drag show was “extreme,” “wrong,” demeaning to the “good name” of Kansas, and “must stop.”

The government didn’t sponsor the show. But we now know that every word the attorney general directed at Kelly applied to him.

Schmidt’s attempts to downplay clergy sexual abuse by dumping this report on a Friday was wrong. Releasing a partial report, rather than all the evidence, demeans the good name of Kansas. Throwing up his hands and claiming nothing can be done to punish real-life groomers enables extremism.

Most of all, if we care about Kansas kids, tiptoeing around religious sex crimes must stop.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone has written columns and edited reporting for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, cnn.com and a host of other publications. Clay spent 2017 to 2021 at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.

MORE FROM AUTHOR