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A new report finds decades of alleged sexual abuse by priests in Catholic churches in Kansas

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

There's a new report on abuse that took place for years in Catholic churches in Kansas. It's just the latest revelation in a series of investigations across the nation, spurred by The Boston Globe's reporting two decades ago that exposed widespread sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church there. We have Celia Llopis-Jepsen of the Kansas News Service here with us now. Thank you for being with us.

CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

RASCOE: So this is a report by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation after an investigation that took four years. How did that probe come about, and what were the findings?

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Well, the Catholic Church in Kansas has published the names of priests before where there are substantiated cases of abuse, but the archbishop of Kansas City in Kansas, Joseph Naumann, asked for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation to help after a law firm reviewed church files and found 15 clergy who they felt needed further investigation. Now, in a 25-page summary, the KBI says it looked through thousands of documents, talked to nearly 140 victims and found 188 clergy suspected of various criminal acts - you know, rape, taking indecent liberties with a child - and the report says that the Catholic Church protected these individuals for decades. Many priests would simply be transferred to another church.

RASCOE: And that was the sort of thing that we've seen all over the country, including Boston and other places. This was a massive investigation that looked at five decades' worth of records. So have there been any charges?

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: No. Investigators talked to victims, witnesses and suspects in 15 states. The KBI then forwarded 30 cases to prosecutors, but those attorneys said in every instance that the cases were too old to be prosecuted under Kansas law. In addition, some of the suspected perpetrators are dead. Some of the victims are dead. The KBI faced other difficulties, too. Some of the priests refused to talk to investigators. Some of the victims wouldn't talk because they had signed nondisclosure agreements as part of settlements with the Catholic Church.

RASCOE: A lot of the abuse that the KBI investigated happened decades ago. Is this a changed Catholic Church today? Like, have there been meaningful reforms?

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Well, in 2020, the pope required every diocese to set up a system for reporting sexual abuse, but that's within the church, not to law enforcement. Now, according to the Kansas report, the Church's data shows a drop over the years in substantiated abuse cases. The KBI says that the Catholic Church has become more willing to collaborate with these types of investigations, too. And the archbishop of Kansas City issued an apology to the victims. He said, quote, "You cannot read this report without your heart breaking."

RASCOE: Are survivor groups satisfied now that this report is out?

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: No, they aren't. As I mentioned, Catholic dioceses in Kansas have published names before, but the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, wants to know if there are new names on this list. And they say it's hard to know whether abuse has decreased, since people often don't come forward right away. SNAP also wants Kansas lawmakers to set penalties for clergy and church staff if they know child abuse is happening and don't report it to law enforcement. And they want Kansas to change its laws so that old cases can go to court.

RASCOE: That's Celia Llopis-Jepsen of the Kansas News Service. Thank you so much for joining us.

LLOPIS-JEPSEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
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.