Lawsuit says Lenexa church knew teen volunteer had committed sex crimes

A lawsuit filed this week alleges that a Lenexa church allowed a teen member to volunteer around children even though officials knew he had a history of sexual abuse.

Officials of Westside Family Church deny the allegation, a lawyer for the church said.

Kessler Lichtenegger pleaded guilty last year to attempted rape and attempted electronic solicitation involving two girls under age 14 who attended Westside. The lawsuit, filed Wednesday by lawyers Rebecca Randles and Antwaun Smith on behalf of the two victims, alleges the church knew of Lichtenegger’s extensive past sexual conduct and crimes involving children.

“But nevertheless (the church) allowed him to have unsupervised and dangerous access to all children in the congregation,” the lawsuit says. “Plaintiffs’ parents believed their children were safe while attending Westside and trusted (the church) to protect their children and not put them in harm’s way.”

At one point, Randles said, the church was concerned about Lichtenegger and put “protocols” in place saying he needed to be with his father when at the church. Yet the church didn’t follow through, the lawsuit says.

Lichtenegger, who is serving a 17-year sentence for the crimes against the two girls, had past convictions as a juvenile. Although records of the past convictions are closed, the lawsuit says Lichtenegger pleaded guilty in 2012 to a sexual assault the year before of a 15-year-old girl with developmental problems. He also pleaded guilty to an earlier sexual felony, the lawsuit says.

Lichtenegger was 17 when he volunteered at the church’s vacation Bible school in the summer of 2014. That’s when he assaulted one of the girls, identified in the lawsuit as Jane Doe 31, in the church parking lot while a children’s service was going on, the lawsuit says.

“All key church leaders admitted to law enforcement officers that the church did not enforce its own protocols meant to prevent Lichtenegger from gaining access to children,” the lawsuit says.

Brad Russell, a lawyer for the church, said church officials did not know of any past convictions or sexual crimes. All they knew, he said, is that there were issues with his family and that officials should pay attention to the young Lichtenegger.

“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. “There was an agreement if the boy was to be at the church, he was supposed to be with his father.”

But on the day of assault, Russell said, “he wasn’t supervised and his father wasn’t there.”

In hindsight, Russell said, it’s easy to see how the church should have done more.

“But we didn’t know in real time there was something so alarming that it would require being expelled from church or being excluded from church activities,” Russell said. “Hindsight is always 20/20. … 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.”

Church officials contacted police after learning of a sexting incident between Lichtenegger and a young girl, identified as Jane Doe 32. During that investigation, police learned of the sexual assault on Jane Doe 31.

A parent of the two victims, known as Jane Doe 33 in the lawsuit, released a statement Thursday.

“We are saddened by the need to file this lawsuit on behalf (of) our daughters and all children at Westside Family Church,” she wrote. “We feel that the church leaders did not take the steps necessary to protect our children from this publicly known, convicted sex offender.

“… 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.”

Members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said big churches must do more to protect children from offenders. The group held a news conference Wednesday afternoon outside the Lenexa church, which has roughly 5,000 members.

“He was a volunteer at vacation Bible school, a role he did not have to be given,” said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP. “And he was put up in front of younger children. … If you are going to do restrictions, certainly follow through with them.”

Randles said churches must have protocols to prevent such situations.

“It’s important that if there is a known history, those people are not allowed access to children,” Randles said. “Pedophiles flock to places where children congregate.”

In recent months, the church has added more cameras and lighting and put more safeguards in place. Background checks for family ministry volunteers have been enhanced and new members now undergo a screening to make sure they are not on the Kansas sex offender registry.

“We’ve adopted a policy that says if there’s something on your record that suggests or indicates any kind of sexual misconduct in the past, you won’t be accepted as a member,” Russell said. “That’s not an easy decision for a church to make. … If churches started excluding all the sinners, there’s not going to be many members.”

Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclaurab