hand holding
hand holding

TOPEKA — Kim Bergman was 12 years old when her gymnastics coach, David Byrd, began abusing her.

Kim Bergman
Kim Bergman

Bergman was not his first victim, and she was not his last. Coaches she confided in did not report the crime, and when a therapist finally did, nothing came of it. Bergman said she felt she had done something wrong and that nobody believed her.

By the time she was able to come forward, it was past the statute of limitations in Kansas to collect damages for childhood sexual abuse. Under current law, these lawsuits must be filed within three years of the survivor turning 18 or within three years of discovering an injury or illness caused by the abuse.

When Byrd was eventually arrested for indecent liberties with a minor, Bergman said, she felt tremendous guilt for not having come forward sooner, reigniting her desire to ensure others in her position have a way to seek justice. Senate Bill 420 would do that by eliminating the deadline for filing lawsuits.

“One of David Byrd’s last known victims recently stated, ‘If the statute of limitations had been lifted before my assault, there’s a good chance that I never would have been a victim,’ ” Bergman said Thursday at a news conference at the Statehouse. “Over and over, I have been told that my abusers’ rights mattered more than mine. Removing the statute of limitations would give me the opportunity to make my abuser accountable for what he did to me.”

Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, introduced legislation four years ago, but after a wave of initial support, it was put on the backburner as COVID-19 matters took priority. Supporters were optimistic the bill would clear the Legislature this year, but Sen. Kellie Warren, a Leawood Republican and chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has yet to schedule the bill for a hearing despite repeated requests from Bregman and other supporters.

A coalition of victims, legislators and an attorney are now calling on Warren to schedule a hearing and give the bill a chance. Warren, who is seeking the GOP nomination for attorney general, did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

“A person who has been subjected to this type of sexual assault, sexual violence as a child, may take decades before they’re able to talk about it again,” Holscher said. “It’s what we call the age of disclosure, which on average for this is the age of 52.”

It would also eliminate the requirement that the claimant must have suffered injury or illness from childhood sexual abuse. Any claims for damages suffered because of childhood sexual abuse that occurred on or after July 1984 would also be revived.

Chris Mann, a Democrat campaigning for Kansas Attorney General, said his time as a police officer and prosecutor taught him how daunting it can be for victims to come forward, especially if they are a child. With the statute of limitations in place, he said, the opportunity for many to seek justice is limited.

“We must not put an expiration date on justice. We must not put an expiration date on protecting our children from violent sexual predators,” Mann said. “This type of crime can rock a family to its core and rob survivors of their future. We cannot turn a blind eye just because it happened too far in the past.”

Another bill the group pushed for, Senate Bill 75, would add duly ordained ministers to the list of positions required to report abuse and neglect of children. A minister who suspects abuse or neglect based on penitential communication would not be required to violate penitential privilege.

Susan Leighnor, a victim of clergy childhood sexual abuse, said the bill was one step in a long road to justice and accountability for the many survivors of clergy abuse.

“How do I find the right words for describing what happened to me in church and school when I was 10 and 12 years old?” she said. “Words like ‘terrorized,’ ‘rape,’ ‘sexually abused’ or ‘violent sexual predator,’ and I believe the most important word is ‘silence’ — to be silenced and shamed by what happened, to be silenced and never to speak about what happened.”

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