Kansas bill requiring clergy to report suspected sexual abuse receives broad support
photo by: Dylan Lysen
TOPEKA — A bill that would require clergy to be mandatory reporters of suspected sexual assault received broad support during its first hearing in the Kansas Legislature.
Several people who identified themselves as victims or related to victims of sexual violence spoke Wednesday in support of Senate Bill 218 before the Kansas Senate’s state and federal affairs committee. Baldwin City Democrat Sen. Tom Holland introduced the bill in January.
The bill would add religious leaders, regardless of religion, to already existing laws that require teachers, social workers, firefighters, police, psychologists, therapists and other professionals to relay information of possible sexual assaults and other abuse to law enforcement.
“This, to me, is a no-brainer,” Holland said. “This is an issue across all religions and denominations.”
Janet Patterson, a Wichita woman who said she has fought for years to shed light on sexual violence committed by Kansas priests, shared the story of her son Eric, who killed himself at the age of 29. Patterson said that shortly before Eric’s death, she learned that Eric said he had been sexually assaulted by Robert Larson, a Catholic priest in Wichita. Larson pleaded guilty in 2001 to abusing three altar boys and another man, and he served several years in prison before his death in 2014, according to the Wichita Eagle.
She said cases of Larson’s sexual assaults in the 1980s were repeatedly reported to the Wichita Catholic diocese, but nothing was done until the Wichita Eagle investigated and reported on the incidents years later.
“I’ve had a lot of experience in this, unfortunately due to tragedy,” Patterson said during the hearing.
Patterson said the law is necessary because it would put “teeth” on what is expected of clergy and provide more protection for children.
“Obviously that’s what we’re all about — protecting our children and our families,” she said. “I ask you to please pass this bill so we can hold everyone accountable, which in the end makes us all safer.”
Chuck Weber, executive director for the Kansas Catholic Conference, said he also supports the passage of the bill. He said the Kansas Catholic Conference, which represents the church at the Statehouse, is working to strengthen prevention of sexual abuse, including requiring training sessions for clergy leaders to detect abuse, among other initiatives.
“We want our church back,” Weber said. “How do we do that? The bill you are working on today is one step.”
Weber said he believes the church needs to acknowledge past incidents and he said he offered a sincere apology for the pain endured by the victims who provided testimony.
“Every Catholic shares this shame,” Weber said.
The committee also received testimony from a Jefferson County family who alleged that their 10-year-old son was sexually assaulted by teenagers at a rural Lawrence church in 2017.
State Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, said reporting abuse should be “common sense.”
“It’s like passing a bill to remind us how to breathe or walk,” he said.
Committee Chair Bud Estes, R-Dodge City, said he understands that reporting should be common sense, but that doesn’t always mean much.
“Sometimes we find it necessary to take steps like this,” Estes said. “It’s unfortunate we have to face things like this in this world, but at least we are halfway brave enough to do that to try to make it better for all.”
Only one group providing testimony did not overtly support the bill. Rev. J.S. Bruss, a pastor in Topeka, said he was representing the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, a church body with 160 parishes in Kansas that was neutral on the bill’s passage.
Bruss said the organization would remain neutral on the bill unless a provision that provides pastoral privilege is removed, in which case his church would be opposed. Holland said the pastoral privilege provision allows people to confess to their religious leaders about things they’ve done without the leader sharing that information with authorities.
However, if someone shares information with a religious leader about suspected abuse outside of that pastoral privilege, the religious leader would be required to report that to the Department of Children and Families, Holland said.
Bruss said clergy vow to God to not divulge sins that are confessed to them, and doing so could result in clergy members being defrocked.
“Many of us pastors would choose to break the law, frankly, than be defrocked,” he said.
He said his church does not want to put parishioners in a position where they are afraid to confess sins, which would not allow them to seek repentance.
“Sometimes this is done by even turning oneself into the authorities,” Bruss said. “We walk beside our parishioners as they do that.”
Although he represented the organization, Bruss said he, personally, supported the passage of the bill.
“I appreciate the legislation, but I cannot speak for all my brothers in ministry, though,” he said.
A violation of the proposed law would be a class B misdemeanor, regardless if another clergy member already reported the incident, according to the bill. A Class B misdemeanor carries the punishment of serving up to six months in county jail and a possible fine, according to Kansas statute.
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