Kansas child sex abuse survivors closer to having power to sue after compromise reached

After years of urging the Kansas Legislature to act, survivors of child sex abuse hope a new compromise will finally allow law enforcement to charge their abusers and let victims sue them for compensation.

Current state law requires those abused as children to file lawsuits by the time they’re 21. Survivors have long said the limit effectively stops most from seeking compensation because many victims don’t come forward until years, even decades, later.

A recently-introduced proposal would remove the criminal statute of limitations on child sex abuse cases. It would also allow survivors of childhood abuse to pursue lawsuits up to the age of 31 – a decade later than current law.

Survivors could also sue after 31 if a criminal conviction has occurred in the past three years. The measure, SB 317, also removes the statute of limitations if a survivor is pursuing a lawsuit against a governmental entity related to their abuse – potentially giving victims wide latitude to sue if they were abused in foster care or other state-run settings.

Lesa Patterson-Kinsey says the sexual abuse by her father, James Patterson, began after she turned 9. She didn’t tell anyone about the abuse until she was 40.

By the time Patterson-Kinsey felt comfortable sharing her story, her father had already passed and her “time had run out.” But this bill, she said, could give victims more time to speak out against their abusers.

“With the passage of this bill, it will give other survivors time to hold their abusers accountable,” Patterson-Kiney said. “It’s time to break our silence.”

More than a dozen survivors of child sexual abuse and family members of victims testified Thursday in support of the compromise legislation during a hearing of the Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee. Speaking in frank terms about some of the most traumatic and difficult moments in their lives, individuals spoke about how abuse had harmed them psychologically and in some cases led to a lifetime of anxiety.

“We have an opportunity here to make a difference in a survivor’s life,” said state Sen. Usha Reddi, a Manhattan Democrat who was abused by her father between the ages of 10 and 16.

“There is no way forward until you grow up.”

The compromise marks a potential breakthrough after efforts to lift the statute of limitations have stalled in recent years. It’s the product of negotiations between state Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat who has long pushed for changes, and Republican leaders in the state Senate.

Holscher said this legislation is necessary, especially because other states have already lengthened their statute of limitations.

“Predators know where to go — where the laws protect them,” Holscher 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.”

Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, said he was happy with the compromise and believed it could pass the Legislature this year.

“The balance is you don’t want something 50 years down the road, have no way to really prove and just have the emotional story to do damage to people, this is kind of the balance,” he said.

Crucially, the measure also has the support of the Kansas Catholic Conference, which represents the Catholic bishops in Kansas. Conference director Chuck Weber in a statement commended victims for sharing their stories.

“No endeavor is ever perfect or even good enough. Legislation alone will not stop the scourge of child sex abuse, but it appears that SB 317 will provide victim survivors more tools in seeking justice for the abuse that has been inflicted upon them,” said Weber, a former Republican state representative.

The new legislative push comes after the January release of a summary report of a years-long Kansas Bureau of Investigation investigation into clergy abuse of children. Former Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican, issued the report just days before leaving office.

The report said the KBI investigated 188 clergy members and identified more than 400 victims, demonstrating the scope of abuse that occurred in Kansas. More than 137 victims were interviewed and 30 probable cause affidavits were sent to prosecutors, though no criminal charges have been filed, in most cases because the accused priests are either dead or the statute of limitations on their crimes have run out.

State Sen. Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican who chairs the Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee, told reporters that the bill “has ended in what looks like a good place.” She said the committee will discuss the bill on Friday, likely advancing it to the full Senate.

The proposal is a good first step, said state Rep. Fred Patton, a Topeka Republican who chairs the Kansas House Judiciary Committee. He said he had been working with representatives “trying to put a little pressure on the Senate so they’d come up with something that would move forward, so I appreciate that they’ve done that.”

The compromise measure, even though it dramatically expands how long victims have to file suit, will still exclude many older survivors.

Legal experts have said lifting the statute of limitations earlier than 1984 is impossible because of Kansas’ statute of repose, which eliminates the right to sue in some circumstances. A 2020 report by the Kansas Judicial Council said courts would likely block such a change for violating the due process rights of defendants.

Earl McIntosh, saying he was no longer ashamed to share his experience, told lawmakers how he had been sexually abused when he was 10 years old. A high school neighbor invited him to a cabin where the neighbor molested him, McIntosh said.

“Out of fear of retaliation, I didn’t tell anyone. However, the repercussions were severe,” McIntosh said. “Prior to being molested, I was a good student with good grades. After being sexually molested, I developed a bad attitude and my grades suffered. I became angry and distrustful of authority.”

McIntosh said he buried the experience deep inside and his anxiety built over time. Not until he was 36 did he confide in his wife and parents about what had happened. And he didn’t seek professional counseling until his early 50s. He is now 57.

“I am here advocating for my fellow brothers and sisters who have suffered alongside me while their attackers roam free,” McIntosh said. “Please help them, they deserve justice.”

The Star’s Katie Bernard contributed to this report.