The family of two Johnson County sisters who in 2014 were sexually abused by a then-17-year-old boy who attended Westside Family Church of Lenexa has agreed to settle a civil case against the church.
The case centered on Kessler Lichtenegger, who in October 2015 pleaded guilty to raping a 13-year-old girl on the grounds of the church while a children’s service was underway. He also pleaded guilty to using a cell phone to sexually solicit the teen’s younger sister, then age 11. Lichtenegger, incarcerated in the Ellsworth (Kan.) Correctional Facility, is serving a 17-year sentence.
In the civil case, filed in 2016 in Johnson County District Court, the girls’ lawyer claimed that leaders of Westside Family had long been aware that Lichtenegger had a history of sexual assault.
In April 2012, when Kessler was a 15-year-old student at Shawnee Mission East High School, he pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 15-year-old classmate who had developmental delays, according to the lawsuit. The assault occurred in 2011 at Prairie Village’s Windsor Park on the afternoon of the Lancer Day Parade.
Despite having knowledge of Lichtenegger’s past, the Westside church leaders nevertheless “allowed him to have unsupervised and dangerous access to all children in the congregation,” according to the lawsuit filed by Kansas City attorney Rebecca Randles. He was a volunteer at the church’s vacation Bible school in the summer of 2014.
In response to the lawsuit when it was filed, the church’s attorney, Bradley Russell, said that although church leaders knew the family was dealing with problems, the church knew of no past convictions for sexual crimes.
“Nothing specific was communicated to the church that suggested he had been adjudicated as a sexual predator or was a sexual threat to young people,” Russell said at the time.
The civil case did not go to trial but instead has been settled through mediation that included a nondisclosure agreement, preventing the church, the family and the attorneys from discussing the terms. The financial amount of the settlement was also not disclosed, but in Kansas the cap on non-economic damages is $250,000.
A settlement hearing originally scheduled for 11 a.m. Monday, in which the court officially approves the settlement, has been rescheduled, but lawyers for both sides said the settlement has been agreed upon.
“The church doesn’t have any comment,” Russell said, “other than the fact that we’re pleased that the parties were able to work together to resolve our differences and move forward.”
Not all feel that way.
Livid over what the called the church’s “enabling,” the father of the two sisters, now ages 16 and 14, continues to insist the church ought to take greater blame for what happened to his girls.
The father, who did not want his name used as to not identify his daughters, is not a part in the lawsuit and thus is not bound by confidentiality. His former wife, the mother of the girls, however, is a plaintiff in the suit.
“They knew his history and they knew he was a threat,” the father said of Westside’s knowledge of Lichtenegger’s past sexual crime. “If he is that dangerous, how do you let him participate in VBS (vacation Bible school)?”
The father insists that the church had an obligation to let parishioners know that when their children take part in church activities that another child or adult among them has a history of child sexual abuse.
“Someone has to draw the line,” the father said. “There was no disclosure. That was the part of this that really bothers me. The church knew and several staff members knew. But they don’t tell the congregation.”
In court records, the victims as minors go by the pseudonyms Jane Doe 31 and Jane Doe 32. In an earlier court proceeding, Westside made headlines when Russell filed a lawsuit in July 2016 in the unusual attempt to prevent the girls from remaining anonymous, a move that their children’s attorney, Randles, cast as re-victimization.
“These children feel betrayed and stigmatized by the church,” she said at the time, “and this further betrays and stigmatizes them.”
The court ruled that the girls would remain anonymous.
In previous interviews, Russell said that the church added safeguards following the incident, such as adding more cameras and lighting, as well as enhanced background checks for family ministry volunteers to ensure none are on the Kansas sex offender registry. A policy was adopted excluding individuals from church membership if there is an indication they have a record suggesting a history of sexual misconduct.