The Kansas Bureau of Investigation's public appeal for people to step forward with allegations of sexual misconduct among members of the Catholic clergy prompted 74 investigations in 33 Kansas counties, officials said Tuesday.
Attorney General Derek Schmidt requested in November that the KBI initiate an investigation of victimization by members of the clergy, church employees and volunteers or any others in positions of authority within the four Catholic dioceses in Kansas.
Since the KBI went public in February, the agency received 119 reports from purported victims regarding sexual abuse by clergy members. More than half of those reports led to initiation of investigations by KBI agents assigned to a task force.
Chuck Weber, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, said the organization encouraged the KBI to look into complaints of abuse. The dioceses in Kansas have an internal reporting system for alleged abuse, he said, but people uneasy about that system were directed to call law enforcement directly.
"The Catholic churches, all four dioceses, we welcome any and all investigations," said Weber, a former state legislator. "We've been open to inquiries."
Wichita resident Janet Patterson, who had a son who died by suicide in 1999 after abuse by a priest, said the KBI investigation was essential to sort out past crimes. She equated abuse at the hands of religious leaders to a "third-degree burn to the soul."
"It's something that needs to be done," Patterson said. "I feel if they don't pursue it as far as they can there will be a lot of people who are not helped or validated and a lot of people who won't be held accountable."
She said her son was abused by Robert Larson, who served with the Catholic church in Wichita, Newton and Conway Springs. She said church officials knew of Larson's conduct in the early 1980s. She said five of his victims, including her son, died by suicide. Larson was removed from the priesthood in 1988 and agreed to plead guilty in 2001 to abusing three boys. The former priest died in 2014.
During the 2019 session of the Kansas Legislature, Patterson testified in favor of a bill that would mandate in state law that faith leaders report sexual abuse to authorities. The bill passed the Senate but stalled in the House. Weber said the Kansas Catholic Conference endorsed the bill.
"That felt like a slam dunk," Patterson said. "I can't see why anybody would be against it."
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support organization based in St. Louis, issued a statement in response to the KBI announcement expressing appreciation for sharing of preliminary information on the inquiry with parishioners and the public in Kansas.
"To us, this update shows that when people speak up, the authorities will listen, and we hope that this news encourages other survivors — both in Kansas and throughout the country — to come forward and make a report to police and prosecutors," SNAP said. "This is the kind of transparency that helps people have faith in their institutions and systems. These same kinds of updates are exactly what church officials should do when announcing their own investigations to the public."
The KBI's update of the investigation didn't reveal the counties where cases have been opened nor the geographic distribution of those allegations. The summary didn't disclose how many of the complaints had been previously submitted to church officials or law enforcement agencies.
Victims have been urged by the KBI to report all incidents of sexual abuse that involved a member of the clergy. The appeal applies regardless of how long ago the incident occurred or whether the church or law enforcement officials were previously notified.
The KBI is accepting abuse reports in the ongoing investigation by telephone at 1-800-KS-CRIME or by email at ClergyAbuse@kbi.ks.gov.