Janet Patterson ripped the blinders off when her adult son killed himself shortly after revealing a priest sexually abused him as a child.
For three decades, Catholic church leaders in Wichita, Newton and Conway Springs ignored reports of children suffering at the hands of Robert Larson. At least five victims committed suicide.
"Suicide is a very real thing," Patterson said. "Not only suicide but dying slowly on the vine, so to speak, when you have third-degree burns to the soul. Nobody can see those burns, but they hurt, and they hurt so badly that they influence everything in your life."
Patterson urged a Senate panel Wednesday to approve legislation that would require faith leaders in Kansas to report sexual abuse to authorities.
Larson was quietly removed from priesthood in 1988 and pleaded guilty in 2001 to abusing three boys. He died in 2014 at a Missouri facility for priests who engage in sexual misconduct.
The church knew sordid details of Larson's abuse when he arrived in the early 1980s in Conway Springs, where Patterson's son was an altar boy. The church knew that a few years earlier, a young man who killed himself was abused repeatedly by Larson at pool parties.
Patterson's son died in 1999.
"When we found out that the bishop knew this priest was a pedophile, and the church knew before they sent him to our parish, we felt so betrayed as parents," Patterson said. "We weren't allowed to protect our children, and it's just inconceivable to me that I could walk back into that institution and be part of it. It doesn't mean I don't believe in God. I do. Very fervently. But that relationship has really been changed as a result."
The Catholic dioceses in Kansas support Senate Bill 218, which was introduced by Sen. Tom Holland, D-Baldwin City, and contains an exception for sins heard during confession.
Former Rep. Chuck Weber, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, said churches have opened their files to state authorities who are investigating clergy abuse claims in Kansas.
"We want our church back," Weber said. "We're taking it back. No exception. No predators."
Patterson said she appreciated Weber's remarks, but "words alone won't make a difference." People need to be educated, Patterson said.
"The average person doesn't have a concept of what sexual abuse really means, especially when it's a child who doesn't really have a sexual template formed and doesn't know what's supposed to be happening," Patterson said.
J.S. Bruss, senior pastor at St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Topeka, said his support for proposed legislation was dependent upon the penitential exception.
Clergy would risk being defrocked by disclosing a confession, Bruss said. If pastors have to choose between breaking the law and being defrocked, he said, they will break the law.
"If my parishioners fear confessing the sins that are on their heart, even their deepest darkest sins, my very ability as a pastor to do what Christ has called me to do is destroyed," Bruss said.