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Kansas found 188 Catholic clergy accused of sex abuse. Now the state's getting pressed for names

Scott Canon
Kansas News Service

Janet Patterson remembers attending a Catholic Mass at her parish near Wichita and hearing the congregation’s newly assigned priest lecture the parishioners.

“I remember him saying, ‘You must never criticize the priest,’” she said. “I was sitting there in the church with my son, Eric, and my other kids and my husband. And I remember thinking, ‘Who’s criticizing the priest?’”

Only later did Patterson learn about the long list of accusations of sexual abuse levied against the previous priest, Father Robert Larson, who had just been reassigned from this church in Conway Springs to another congregation in Newton, Kansas.

Ultimately convicted of molesting four boys, Larson allegedly molested many more. Five of them died by suicide as young men, including Patterson’s son, Eric.

Eric died at age 29 in 1999, a few years before Larson’s conviction.

Reassigning priests and keeping their parishioners in the dark about the reasons was just one way the Catholic Church hid sex offenders from scrutiny. Larson bounced from one location to another frequently over the decades.

A new report from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation documents how the church’s actions shielded molesters and hampered prosecutions. The KBI found 188 clergy suspected of committing crimes — including sodomy, rape and child rape.

But a national survivors’ group says Kansas must go further. The public report is only a summary of what the KBI found.

“A glaring absence is that of the alleged abusers’ names,” the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said in a statement on Monday. “We demand the names of alleged abusers in this report and that the Archdiocese list of credibly accused be updated immediately.”

The group also called on Kansas legislators to “look into abolishing their civil statute of limitations and open a lookback window so that more abusers can be brought to light and to justice.”

“Similarly, we hope they will move to make clergy and church staff mandatory reporters so that there are penalties and deterrents for not reporting abuse to authorities,” SNAP said.

The KBI report says Kansas dioceses regularly ignored church policies regarding allegations of abuse. It says many cases are too old to prosecute.

It also says that church data point to a drop in the number of substantiated abuse cases in more recent years.

But SNAP says it remains difficult to know how many children have suffered sexual abuse at the hands of priests more recently because “many victims likely have not come forward.”

The KBI investigation dug into 50 years of allegations and included reviewing thousands of documents. Investigators interviewed nearly 140 victims.

Patterson says these numbers can’t convey the scale of despair that abusive priests caused.

“I would like to be able to have people understand that every number there represents someone who’s been hurt,” she said. “And often this person has suffered this in silence for years and years and years.”

Celia Llopis-Jepsen is the environment reporter for the Kansas News Service. You can follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ or email her at celia (at) kcur (dot) org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

Copyright 2023 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Celia comes to the Kansas News Service after five years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. She brings in-depth experience covering schools and education policy in Kansas as well as news at the Statehouse. In the last year she has been diving into data reporting. At the Kansas News Service she will also be producing more radio, a medium she’s been yearning to return to since graduating from Columbia University with a master’s in journalism.