TOPEKA, Kansas — Abuse survivors and advocates who’ve pushed for legislation making it easier in Kansas to prosecute abusers and file lawsuits decades later have achieved a breakthrough in the Legislature, where the proposal is advancing quickly.
The bill would remove limits on how long prosecutors have to file charges against suspects for any of a dozen violent sexual offenses against children, including indecent liberties, aggravated human trafficking and internet trading in child pornography. It also would give abuse survivors more time to file lawsuits seeking monetary damages.
Reports across the U.S. of abuse by Catholic clergy have spurred interest in making it easier to pursue criminal prosecutions or lawsuits over cases of abuse dating back decades. In January, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation reported that it had identified 188 Catholic clergy suspected of crimes stretching back to the 1950s and submitted 30 affidavits to prosecutors. No criminal charges resulted, largely because of the state law limiting how long prosecutors have to pursue cases, the KBI said.
The state Senate voted unanimously on Wednesday to approve the bill, six days after a committee hearing. The measure went to the House, which could vote on it next week.
“I am sad to say the person who sexually assaulted me is still out in the public and has never been held accountable,” Earl McIntosh, a 57-year-old Topeka resident molested by a teenage neighbor when he was 10, told a Senate committee.
McIntosh testified of his fellow abuse survivors, “They deserve justice.”
For violent sexual crimes against children other than rape and aggravated sodomy, Kansas prosecutors currently can file criminal charges until the victim turns 28 or up to a year after DNA evidence establishes a suspect, whichever is later. The bill would eliminate those time limits.
The bill would give abuse survivors until they turn 31 or three years after the abuser is convicted of a sexually violent crime against a child. Lawsuits currently must be filed by the time a survivor turns 21 or three years after a survivor “discovered or reasonably should have discovered” that childhood abuse caused an injury or illness.
The measure does not include another proposal survivors have pursued, requiring clergy to report allegations of child abuse to authorities.
Eighteen states have eliminated their statute of limitations for child sex crimes, according to Child USA, a Philadelphia think tank that focuses on laws dealing with child abuse. The group says 15 states have no statute of limitations for filing at least some abuse-related lawsuits.
Survivors and advocates told legislators that survivors often wait well into adulthood — often into their 50s — to disclose abuse because of the trauma, which often comes with shame and a fear of retaliation.
Advocates for changing Kansas law had trouble in recent years even getting a hearing for their proposals.
In January, they announced bipartisan efforts seeking to change state law. Survivors set up a table in the Statehouse visitor’s center each day lawmakers were in session this year, and legislators had to pass it going between their parking garage and their offices. Survivors met with Senate President Ty Masterson, a Wichita-area Republican, and he recently helped draft the current proposal.
No one testified against the measure, though some influential players were neutral.
An association for insurance companies expressed concern about a provision eliminating a $500,000 cap on damages in lawsuits against government agencies, arguing that insurance costs would rise and drive companies out of the state. The league representing Kansas cities said the bill could result in them paying damages “simply because a bad actor chose to commit their crime on city property.”
But the Kansas Catholic Conference said in a statement that the bill appears to give survivors “more tools in seeking justice.”
“There is no time limitation on when the Catholic Church will offer services and support to clergy abuse victims,” the statement said.
During the Senate’s debate Wednesday, state Sen. Cindy Holscher, a Kansas City-area Democrat, speaking in favor of the bill, told colleagues that when she was 5 years old, a man who often worked on her family’s farm tried to sexually assault her in a barn. She said the noise of her home’s back screen door banging against a wall interrupted him and allowed her to escape. She said she avoided telling the full story for nearly 50 years, until this week’s debate.
“For years, I didn’t even recognize this as an attempted assault and attempted sexual assault, not until I had my own children. Yes, I kept thinking I did something wrong,” Holscher said. “My mind keeps trying to shield me from the embarrassment, the shame, the trauma of that day.”