Opinion

Kansas sex abuse law obstructs justice for young victims. Lawmakers can fix it now.

January 23, 2023 3:33 am

Survivor Lesa Patterson-Kinsey speaks at a Jan. 12 news conference about childhood sexual assault at the Statehouse in Topeka. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Kansas law demands an impossibility of young people: If they suffered childhood sexual abuse, they must file a civil case before their 21st birthday.

This is the same state where GOP leaders currently advocate a bill criminalizing gender-affirming care for those under 21. That is, they appear to believe that Kansas youths can’t possibly be mature enough to transition, but they are more than mature enough to cope with the shame and scrutiny of accusing an adult of abusing them.

Other lawmakers have advocated removing that barrier, with survivors speaking up in support. Those who experienced sexual abuse can take years, if not decades, to come to terms with their experiences. They deserve better from Kansas.

Lesa Patterson-Kinsey appeared at a news conference earlier this month with other survivors urging change.

“At 21, the majority of victims are not even able to tell another person about what happened to them, let alone begin a lawsuit that would require re-telling of their story multiple times to police officers, detectives, judges and sit in court across from their abuser,” she told me in a follow-up email. “There is a large amount of shame, fear and often they are still financially and emotionally connected to their abuser. This is especially true when the abuser is a family member. Also at 21, survivors probably wouldn’t be able to afford to bring a case.”

According to the summary of Catholic Church sexual abuse issued by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, more than 400 children were abused since 1950. Roughly 200 members of the clergy were accused. With numbers like those, ask yourself how many more victims still live across the state and our country. Consider many men and women, now in their retirement years, must be keeping their abuse a closely guarded secret.

An investigation like this one, no matter how thorough, can only reveal a partial picture. A mere 30 cases involving 14 clergy were forwarded to district attorneys, and no charges followed. How many more people have had their own personal justice denied by state law and social opprobrium?

An investigation like this one, no matter how thorough, can only reveal a partial picture. A mere 30 cases involving 14 clergy were forwarded to district attorneys, and no charges followed. How many more people have had their own personal justice denied by state law and social opprobrium?

– Clay Wirestone

Take Susan Leighnor.

Now 67 and living in Colorado, the former Hutchinson resident says she was abused by clergy as a preteen. She didn’t come to terms with what happened to her — recovering traumatic memories of repeated offenses — until six years ago.

“When I think back to when I was 21, I had no memory of it,” she said.

Even if she had remembered the scope of circumstances of the abuse, Leighnor told me, she’s not sure she would have told anyone.

“The maturity level is not there. And people don’t want to talk about this stuff,” she said.

“It’s embarrassing, and if they’re from a strong Catholic family, there’s always that belief of I’m not going to be believed,” she added.

Talking or writing about sexual abuse can seem overwhelming.

You have the personal consequences, along with the legal implications. You have the institutions that covered up or minimized crimes. And you have a society all too willing to protect children in the abstract but neglect them in reality. Republican leaders in Kansas, for example, insinuate that tolerance of transgender youths somehow leads to abuse, while ignoring that the entity selling their anti-abortion amendment was responsible for hundreds of wounded children and multiple suicide deaths.

The institutions responsible want you to be overwhelmed. Lobbyists for the Catholic Church in Kansas would be delighted for residents to throw up their hands and decide that nothing can be done because the problem appears too complex. The crimes took place too long ago, the evidence has disappeared, we can’t conclusively identify those responsible.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Lawmakers can do something right now to improve the situation. Eliminate the age limitation for filing civil suits over sex abuse. Allow those victimized as children to pursue some sort of justice for the crimes committed against their youth and innocence. Pass a bill through the House of Representatives and Senate and allow Gov. Laura Kelly to sign it into law. Fix this.

“The average age of disclosure is 52 years old,” Patterson-Kinsey said. “Therefore, the current Kansas (statute of limitations) doesn’t come close to the scientifically proven age of disclosure. By the time the survivor is in their 50s, they are usually independent and ready to tell their story. You also reach a stage in your life around your 50s when you stop requiring the approval of others, so it’s easier.

“I know it may seem odd to others that as survivors we hold our secret for so many years. However, the pain and fear which this crime creates is extremely strong, and it takes decades to become strong enough to share.”

Or as Leighnor asked plaintively during our conversation: “How many stories haven’t been told?”

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, the 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.

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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.

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