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Lawsuit accusing Kansas priest of sexual abuse in 1980s can go forward, court says

Kansas City Star logo Kansas City Star 1/23/2021 Katie Moore and Judy L. Thomas, The Kansas City Star

Jan. 22—A lawsuit alleging a Topeka priest sexually abused a boy in the 1980s can proceed after an appeal by church officials was struck down this week.

The lawsuit, which says the boy was 9 years old when a priest at St. Matthew's Church began abusing him, was filed in Wyandotte County District Court in August 2017.

The lawsuit names as defendants a priest identified in court records only as M.J. and the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, which has authority over St. Matthew's.

It alleges that M.J., a former priest, engaged in a pattern of sexual abuse during his assignments to parishes in northeast Kansas. According to the plaintiff, who is now in his 40s, the priest abused him at the church's rectory, the Topeka YMCA and on trips until he was 12. The lawsuit says the boy repressed the memories until late fall 2015 when news reports of priest abuse emerged in the media.

The plaintiff is identified in the lawsuit only as John Doe H.B. The Star generally does not name possible victims of sexual abuse without their permission.

After a Wyandotte County judge ruled the lawsuit could go forward without being barred by the state's statute of limitations, the Archdiocese appealed.

But on Jan. 15, the Kansas Court of Appeals upheld the lower court, striking down the appeal and allowing the lawsuit to go forward. The appeals court said negligence claims against an institution are not barred by the statute of limitations.

Rebecca Randles, the Kansas City attorney who represents the plaintiff, said the Court of Appeals decision was "a gigantic deal" that "opens the courthouse to survivors."

Randles said about half the courts in the country have ruled that these kinds of statutes apply only to individual defendants, not to corporate defendants.

"The archdiocese argued that the statute applied only to (the priest), not to them," she said. "The question that had never been answered in Kansas was did the statute apply to the church or the individual perpetrator only? The court ruled that it applies to the church, and, unlike in Missouri, also allowed for negligence claims against the church."

The plaintiff, who The Star is not naming in this story, said in a phone interview Friday that he felt relief when he read the Kansas Court of Appeals' decision.

"This ruling can affect others down the line," the man said. "I'm sure that there are more cases to come. Hopefully this is groundbreaking to allow those other ones to move forward."

The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas has seen at least 22 clergy credibly accused of abusing minors since allegations of priest abuse rocked the Catholic Church in recent years. Nationally, thousands of victims have come forward, starting investigations across the country.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation in November 2018 began looking into reports of abuse in the four Catholic dioceses in Kansas. As of August, at least 120 cases have been opened.

The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, reached for comment Friday about the appeals court decision, said it takes any allegation of misconduct seriously, but was not at liberty to comment on ongoing litigation.

The Archdiocese said anyone with concerns about abuse should contact law enforcement and then the Archdiocese at 913-647-3051.

Victims of clergy misconduct may contact the KBI at 1-800-572-7463 or email clergyabuse@kbi.ks.gov.

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