Kim Bergman speaks at a Jan. 12, 2023, news conference on childhood sexual assault at the Statehouse in Topeka. Bergman and other survivors shared their stories and called on lawmakers to remove a statute of limitations on civil and criminal cases. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Four survivors of childhood sexual abuse revealed details about the worst moments of their lives in a public rebuke of state law that protects pedophiles from criminal prosecution or civil lawsuits.
Backed by a bipartisan coalition of state lawmakers, the women emphasized that it can take years before a survivor accepts what happened and is willing to talk about it. Most people who are victimized as children won’t share their experiences until they are over age 50.
Kansas state law requires requires survivors to file a civil lawsuit by age 21. Proposed legislation would remove the statute of limitations for both civil and criminal cases, and open the door to retroactive litigation dating to 1984. The Legislature eliminated the statute of limitations for criminal cases in 2013, but didn’t make the law retroactive.
State law fell under renewed scrutiny last week when a Kansas Bureau of Investigation report into abuse by Catholic clergy was made public. The four-year inquiry found 188 clergy members at four dioceses in Kansas were suspected of criminal acts dating to 1950.
The KBI referred 30 cases involving 14 clergy members to district attorneys, but no criminal charges were filed — primarily because of the statute of limitations.
In a news conference Thursday at the Statehouse, Rep. Bob Lewis, a Republican from Garden City and attorney who has worked with sexual abuse survivors, emphasized that the problem isn’t contained to the Catholic church. Lewis said childhood sexual abuse happens in every institution where there are children.
Kim Bergman, Tess Ramirez, Lesa Patterson-Kinsey and Joe Cheray shared their stories at the news conference. Kansas Reflector doesn’t identify survivors of sexual abuse without their consent, and the women granted permission to use their names.
A ridiculous rule
Bergman sat in her car in the parking lot of a Lawrence gym operated by her former coach, who had abused her at a camp when she was 12.
She was afraid he would hurt other girls. She was right.
“I wanted desperately to walk into the lobby and announce to everyone that David Byrd is a pedophile and should not be trusted, then froze,” Bergman said. “To this day, I feel horrible that I wasn’t strong enough to do more.”
Bergman said she had been vulnerable as a child because of difficulties at home, and Byrd took advantage of her. She described her attempt to make him stop touching her while watching TV in a hotel room.
“I was terrified,” she said. “I finally got up and sat behind him to try to get away. Instead, David turned and glared at me and asked in a way that I’ll never forget, ‘Why did you move?’ ”
He proceeded to abuse her further. She felt trapped.
When she got home, she told her best friend about her coach’s actions. At age 12, she said, “neither one of us could understand the magnitude of what happened.”
Later, her therapist reported the abuse, and she was interviewed by police. By the time she was strong enough to talk about what happened, but she was told time had run out.
“I knew there would be future victims, and that they would have to face David on their own because of a ridiculous rule that stated my abuse no longer counted,” Bergman said.
A decade after he abused Bergman, he did the same to Ramirez.
Ramirez said she was in shock when she told her best friend about the abuse. Her friend told her, “that’s not a secret that gets to be kept.” If not for her, Ramirez said, “my story would have a different ending.”
Byrd pleaded guilty in 2009 to indecent liberties with a child and received a 30-month sentence.
Ramirez said the harm Byrd caused her and other girls could have been prevented if earlier victims had been allowed to expose his actions in court after they turned 21.
“A survivor has to accept what’s happened to them, be comfortable talking about it publicly, and have the means to file a lawsuit before they turn 21,” Ramirez said. “Now, it may be hard to tell because I’m standing in a room full of incredibly brave people, but talking about the worst thing that’s ever happened to you is incredibly difficult.”
Ramirez said she is 29 and only recently became comfortable talking about her abuse publicly.
As she looked up at the row of cameras pointed at her in the crowded room, she added: “And I wouldn’t say this is comfortable.”
Pray for relief
Cheray grew up in a small, predominantly Catholic town in Kansas.
She went to live with her grandparents at age 5, and her grandfather began sexually abusing her at the age of 10. She tried to run away and twice tried to kill herself.
In a moment of despair, she turned to her priest.
“The only advice he told me was to go back home and pray that the situation gets better,” Cheray said. “How could anyone tell a child to go back to being sexually abused and pray that it gets better? I knew that was really code for, ‘Your grandfather is president of the altar guild and a significant financial contributor to the church.’ ”
Patterson-Kinsey spent her childhood trying to avoid her abusive father.
“It was extremely confusing,” she said. “I didn’t like it. He told me not to tell anybody, and I didn’t know who I would tell. I wanted to pretend like it didn’t happen.”
For years, she was reluctant to say anything because she wanted to protect her mother and sister, who were also victimized by her father. The story of her abuse “wasn’t just my story,” she said. In a small town, everybody would know about the family.
By the time she could talk about it, she was about 40 years old.
“My time ran out,” Patterson-Kinsey said. “My time ran out when I was in college.”
She added: “Passage of this bill will give other survivors time to hold their abusers accountable.”
Senate Republicans didn’t give a hearing to a similar bill that was introduced last year, despite pleading from Bergman and others.
Lewis, the Republican House member, said childhood sexual assault is an “extraordinarily important issue that our state is finally beginning to take seriously.”
“There is a common element in all of their stories,” Lewis said. “That element is that the child sex abuse has robbed them of agency. It’s robbed them of their voice. They’ve been shut down and told to go away, ignored.”
Sen. Cindy Holscher, a Democrat from Overland Park, said there is more interest in the issue following the release of the KBI report on clergy abuse.
Holscher said some people in the past wanted to dismiss concerns because they thought the abuse was the result of just three or four priests. The implication of 188 clergy members in the KBI report “woke some people up,” she said.
“Phones are ringing off the hook from people out there across Kansas calling into the KBI, calling to us as legislators, talking about the situation,” Holscher said.
Passage of proposed legislation would open the door to lawsuits against the Catholic church and other institutions. Holscher said she doesn’t anticipate the state would be flooded with cases, but she acknowledged there could be resistance to changing the law.
“The pushback could be the fact that when people bring civil cases, we’re talking money,” Holscher said.
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