An attorney representing Westside Family Church, the Lenexa church that Prairie Village native Kessler Lichtenegger attended with his family for years before his abuse of two young members led to his dismissal from the congregation and ultimately his imprisonment, vigorously defended the organization against claims contained in a court filing by the girls’ family.
Attorney Brad Russell said the filing was “replete with factual inaccuracies” and that, contrary to the assertions made in the suit, church officials were not aware that Lichtenegger had been convicted of sex crimes against minors prior to the criminal incident that occurred on church property in the summer of 2014. Russell acknowledged that Lichtenegger’s father had told pastors a few years earlier that there was “something going on” with Lichtenegger and his older brother, but that at no point did anyone alert them specifically to sexual misconduct.
“This is a church. This is where lots of people bring their problems and their sins. It’s a daily occurrence for someone to say I’m having some problems,” he said. “It’s a balancing act that pastors have to do to decide how far to pry and push somebody.”
Russell said the church’s decision to suggest Lichtenegger’s father accompany the teen when he attended was the result of concerns about a number of stresses in his life, including a divorce going on in the family. Russell also said that the petition’s insinuation that Lichtenegger was instructing and supervising children was “utterly ridiculous and preposterous,” pointing out that at one point in the petition the plaintiffs’ lawyers even suggest Lichtenegger was a member of the “clergy.” Instead, Russell said, Lichtenegger’s participation in the vacation bible school program was limited to performing with other older youth members in skits to open and close the day’s activities. It was between his participation in those skits, Russell said, that Lichtenegger went out to the van in the church lot and invited his victim to join him.
Russell also made clear that the church had a background check policy in place for volunteers, but that because Lichtenegger’s prior conviction was sealed by the juvenile court, it was hidden to background checking companies. He said that as far as the church knew, Kessler had no history of sexual misconduct.
“What the church knew was he was attending public school, where he would have daily access to a variety of girls,” Russell said. “If he was a known sexual predator, you would feel the school would take steps to address that there.”
(The Shawnee Mission School District allowed Lichtenegger to return to SM East where the girl he sexually assaulted in 2011 was forced to come face-to-face with him on several occasions despite his adjudication in juvenile court).
Russell argued the church ultimately became the scene of a crime that was unfortunately predictable — and that could have happened almost anywhere.
“The church parking lot became a target of opportunity for Kessler Lichtenegger,” Russell said. “This could have happened at the kids’ schools. It could have happened at the parents’ homes after school…We know Kessler now, and we know what his propensities are. And knowing that we know that this was probably going to happen somewhere at some time.”
But some advocates for the victims have been calling into question the church’s claims in the wake of the court filing. David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests held a press conference Wednesday to say SNAP’s understanding was that the church did know of Lichtenegger’s previous charges. Lichtenegger should not have been at vacation bible school, Clohessy contended.
Rebecca Randles, the attorney who filed the civil suit on behalf of the victims, said the information the church provided to police during the criminal process indicated they knew Lichtenegger had a history of sexual misconduct. The fact the church put protocols in place, Randles said, shows the church was aware. Randles wondered how the church could have put someone with that history in a position to attend vacation bible school. She said the suit does not intend to claim Lichtenegger was a managing agent for the church, but that he was put out as a leader.
The mother of the two girls, who is listed as Jane Doe 33 in the filing, also issued a statement this morning:
“We are saddened by the need to file this lawsuit on behalf our daughters and all children at Westside Family Church. We feel that the Church Leaders did not take the steps necessary to protect our children from this publicly known, convicted sex offender. We feel they willingly enabled him to participate in student ministry. We are hoping this lawsuit will bring awareness of the need for better sexual predator policies to be put into place and firmly administered at Westside as well as other organizations and venues where parents have a right to expect their children are safe.”
Jimmy Hinton, a Pennsylvania minister who started the organization Church Protect last year to help congregations identify potential predators and who had been in contact with the families of Lichtenegger’s victims, said Westside’s response to the suit and criticisms of the plaintiffs are predictable. Hinton reported his own father, also a minister, to investigators after hearing from a woman who had been in his congregation that he had sexually abused her as a child. He now leads the church from which is father was removed, and works to help other churches identify pedophiles.
“I told [the family] to expect harsh push back,” Hinton said of the lawsuit. “Nobody ever wants to admit they made a bad decision. Unfortunately, [letting people who have sex crimes on their records interact with minors] is done routinely. Vary rarely do churches separate a perpetrator from children because they want to believe the person is reformed.”
Hinton said that churches are unfortunately easy targets for pedophiles and sex abusers because they can take advantage of the trusting nature of the congregants. Instead of denying that a church has a responsibility in these situations, Hinton said, church leaders should be more forthcoming about the deficiencies that can lead to abuse.
“This ‘How dare you accuse us of making mistakes’ response never ends well,” Hinton said. “Churches should admit their areas of weakness. One thing that I tell people is that if you hear murmurings going on that this or that person could pose a potential threat, it’s the church leader’s job not to brush that off. It’s their job to actually investigate. A lot of them say, that’s not our job. Actually it is. Not necessarily your legal responsibly, but it’s your moral and ethical responsibility.”