A Southern Baptist church being sued over sexual abuse committed by a former Vacation Bible School volunteer currently behind bars is asking a court to reveal the identities of two underage victims, accusing the girls’ parents and lawyers of using pretrial publicity to malign the congregation’s reputation.
Westside Family Church of Lenexa, Kan., filed a petition in district court June 15 requesting that the teenaged sisters and their parents who sued the church June 9 not be allowed to proceed with the case with their identifies protected by pseudonyms.
Church officials accused the family of “a Pearl Harbor-styled barrage of negative publicity” against the congregation purposely timed to coincide with this year’s Vacation Bible School.
“Ordinarily, defense counsel would stipulate permission to use of an alias in a case involving a minor claiming sexual abuse,” the church claimed in the petition. “Sadly, the minors’ parents and attorneys have chosen a different path” by leaking their complaint to the media before the congregation received official notice that it was being sued.
“While the Defendant admits the sensitivity of the allegations, Plaintiffs tactically decided to ‘draw first blood’ on the issue publicly,” the church’s petition says. “In time, that may ultimately be seen in hindsight to be a bad decision. However, they should not be able to hide behind pseudonyms after systematically and intentionally initiating a campaign specifically designed to damage Defendant’s reputation.”
David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said it’s the first time in his 28 years of advocacy work he has witnessed a religious organization trying to “out” a minor coming forward to allege sexual abuse.
“This has happened in a relatively small number of cases involving adults, but I’ve never seen a defendant try to ‘out’ kids who are still kids in a child sex case,” Clohessy said.
Clohessy said Westside Family Church filed the petition asking that the two girls not be allowed to proceed under “Jane Doe” identities in retaliation after SNAP showed up at the church June 8 with protest signs to answer questions from the media, a common practice for the support group. SNAP was formed originally by survivors of the Roman Catholic pedophilia scandal but today includes members from various denominations.
Clohessy, an abuse survivor who testified before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, called the attempt to name the girls a “stunningly callous” tactic more befitting “cold-hearted CEOs” than “caring shepherds” watching over a spiritual flock.
“This mean-spirited move will deter others who see, suspect or suffer child sex crimes into staying silent, enabling more predators to hurt more kids,” Clohessy said. “It will also rub more salt into the already deep and still fresh wounds of this suffering family. It is a shameful move by officials who profess to be ‘Christians.’”
Experts say identifying and publicizing the names of child victims can exacerbate trauma, complicate recovery, discourage future disclosures and inhibit cooperation with authorities for the children involved.
“Child victims need to be able to trust that their privacy will be protected as much as possible by those whom they have turned to for help,” three University of New Hampshire professors wrote in an article in 2010.
“The alternative means not only the risk of heightened distress,” said researchers Lisa M. Jones, David Finkelhor and Jessica Beckwith, “but also the possibility that fewer victims will come forward to get help at all.”
The professors said the U.S. justice system recognizes the need for particular protections for children, typically handling cases involving juvenile offenders in closed hearings and records that are sealed.
That’s what happened when Kessler P. Lichtnegger — sentenced last year to 17 years in prison for sexually abusing the two girls who attended Westside Family Church — was convicted earlier of sexual assault against a 15-year-old girl with developmental disabilities committed in 2011 when he was a freshman in high school.
The lawsuit claims that leaders of Westside Family Church knew or should have known that Lichtnegger posed a threat and were negligent in allowing him access to children.
The church’s attorney said pastors were aware there was “something going on” with Lichtnegger’s past but didn’t know it involved sexual abuse. Because Lichtenegger’s prior conviction was sealed by the juvenile court, the attorney said, it didn’t show up in a criminal background check.
Early on, attorney Brad Russell told the Kansas City Star, it was agreed that if the boy was at church he should be accompanied by his father. As time passed without incident, he said, things got more lax and on the day of the assault Lichtenegger wasn’t supervised.
“Hindsight is always 20/20,” Russell said. “I’m sure that church leadership, the parents and the two kids involved in this would like to go back in time and make different decisions.”
The Westside Family Church website describes the congregation as “a purpose driven church” without mention of denominational affiliation. It shows up in the Southern Baptist Convention’s “church search” database as a member church founded in 1977 with an average attendance of 4,700.
In 2008 Westside Family Church was host congregation for the annual meeting of the Kansas-Nebraska Convention of Southern Baptists. Two years ago Baptist Press profiled the church in a story written by a North American Mission Board reporter featuring Westside Family Church’s extensive outreach to children.