By Lawrence Journal-World |

Kansas Senate gives initial approval to bill requiring clergy to report suspected sexual abuse

photo by: Shutterstock photo

The Senate chamber of the Kansas Statehouse is pictured July 23, 2014, in Topeka.

A bill that would require church clergy to be mandated reporters of child abuse, including sexual assault, received initial support from the Kansas Senate on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 218 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.

The Senate approved the bill on a voice vote. The chamber still needs to vote on the bill for a final approval, which is expected on Wednesday, before it can be sent to the House of Representatives for consideration.

State Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, crafted the bill with the help of the Kansas Catholic Conference, an organization that represents the church in the Statehouse, in response to a Jefferson County family who alleged that their 10-year-old son was sexually assaulted by teenagers at a rural Lawrence church in 2017. The family, including the boy, provided testimony in a committee hearing earlier this month.

Other testimony in the committee hearing on the bill focused on alleged sexual abuses committed by Catholic priests in Kansas and the rest of the country.

“It got pretty emotional and raw at times,” Holland said in the Senate chamber Tuesday. “But we got through the hearing, and people had the chance to voice their thoughts. In some ways I think they got the chance to do some healing.”

Republican Sens. Bruce Givens, of El Dorado, and Robert Olson, of Olathe, and Democratic Sens. Barbara Bollier, Mission Hills, and Oletha Faust-Goudeau, of Wichita, applauded Holland for crafting the bill.

Givens, seemingly to show the need for the bill, said he was alarmed that the Department for Children and Families reported that it would need to hire two more employees to handle the expected increase of reported abuses.

But Bollier said questions lingered about how the bill would be put to use. She used an example of a child who is assaulted at the age of 3 and a mandatory reporter learns of it when the child is 15. Would that minister need to report an assault that occurred long ago?

“It is unclear in our law,” she said. “If our goal is to protect all children at all times, we may need to tease this out further in another year and be very clear about who should be reported, at what time and how much time could have passed.”

Regardless, Bollier said she supported the bill.

“The more we can protect our children from harm, the better we are as a society,” she said.

Olson said the testimony was “some of the most difficult” the Senate has heard. He said Senate committees have been hearing testimony about abusive priests in Kansas for years, calling the abuses “horrible.”

“We should protect our children, and I think this is a good first step,” he said.

photo by: Dylan Lysen

State Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, speaks with Janet Patterson, who testified in support of SB 218, which would require clergy as mandatory reporters of abuse, Wednesday, March 13, 2019, at the Kansas Statehouse in Topeka.

In the committee hearing on the bill, 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 was necessary because it would add “teeth” to what is expected of clergy and provide more protection for children.

A violation of the proposed law would be a class B misdemeanor, regardless if another clergy member had 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.

Additionally, the law does not affect “pastoral privilege,” which allows people to confess to their religious leaders about things they’ve done without the leader sharing that information with authorities. Holland specified that the law does apply to a minor who discloses abuse during confession; in that case, a report would be required.

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 for Children and Families.

Contact Dylan Lysen

Have a story idea, news or information to share? Contact University of Kansas, higher education, state government reporter Dylan Lysen:

• dlysen@ljworld.com • 785-832-6353 • Twitter: @DylanLysen • Read other stories by Dylan

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