Government & Politics

Lenexa church opposes young sex crime victims remaining anonymous in civil lawsuit

Westside Family Church is in Lenexa.
Westside Family Church is in Lenexa.

A Lenexa church being sued over allegations it allowed a teen sexual offender to be around kids doesn’t think the two victims who filed the lawsuit should be permitted to remain anonymous in court proceedings.

The girls, who currently are under age 16, are known as Jane Doe 31 and Jane Doe 32 in the civil lawsuit. But in response to their attorney’s motion to continue using pseudonyms in court, lawyers for Westside Family Church told the court that allowing that wouldn’t be fair.

“Plaintiffs should not be allowed to use their own anonymity as a shield at the very time they voluntarily chose to use publicity and draw media attention to this matter in order to damage the reputation of the church,” said the response written by Brad Russell, the church’s attorney. “… When an institution like Westside is accused of such allegations, the public has a right to know the accusers.”

Kessler Lichtenegger pleaded guilty last year to attempted rape and attempted electronic solicitation involving the two victims, who at the time were under age 14 and attended Westside. He is serving a 17-year sentence for those crimes.

The response filed recently in the civil case ultimately could lead to the two victims being named in public court filings and during proceedings.

An attorney for the victims, who are sisters, said she has not seen an instance like this dealing with young victims.

“These are minor children,” Rebecca Randles said. She said she didn’t know of any case in the country where attorneys “asked that a minor victim’s name be publicized.”

“The children feel betrayed and stigmatized by the church, and this further betrays and stigmatizes them,” Randles said.

In the civil case, the two girls, along with their guardian, sued the church last month, saying that Westside knew Lichtenegger — who was 17 at the time of the crimes — had a history of sexual abuse and still allowed him to volunteer at a church Vacation Bible School event. Church officials deny the allegations and have said they had no knowledge of any criminal convictions.

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, according to the lawsuit.

In general, it’s crucial that victims remain anonymous when they choose to, said Jessie Hogan, director of advocacy for the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault. Sex crimes often go unreported for fear of the stigma, being blamed or not being believed.

And, Hogan said, identifying victims against their will could only make others hesitant to come forward.

“Identifying them when they don’t want to be named can serve to revictimize children,” Hogan said. “When choices and control are taken away from survivors, it can be similar to the feeling experienced related to that sexual assault or abuse when their power and control was taken away.”

Russell said the lawsuit against Westside contained factual errors and was written for the media, not the court. As well as his response to Randles’ motion to use pseudonyms, Russell filed a motion to have the case dismissed.

“We’re not looking to out these girls,” Russell said. “The church has kept their identities private through the entirety of this process. … We want this lawsuit, the way it was drafted, to be dismissed. We want them to refile and follow the rules. File it where both parties are anonymous.”

Another hearing in the case is set for July 20.

Laura Bauer: 816-234-4944, @kclaurab