The family of SM East student Kessler Lichtenegger’s latest victims have filed a lawsuit against the Westside Family Church in Lenexa this week, claiming that although church leaders were aware of his prior sexual misconduct and history of sexual violence, it did not deter them from allowing him unsupervised access to minors.
While a lawyer for the church states that Westside Family Church officials deny the allegation, the civil petition filed by lawyers Antwaun Smith and Rebecca Randles claims that Lichtenegger, who lived in Prairie Village, had an extensive history of sexual abuse which had previously resulted in the church requiring his father’s accompaniment as a condition of his presence at the church. Filed in Johnson County District Court Wednesday afternoon, the lawsuit alleges that the church didn’t even follow its own guidelines, allowing Lichtenegger to supervise and interact with young children.
Lichtenegger previously pleaded guilty to attempted electronic solicitation and attempted rape last year, in charges related to having a sexual interaction on church property with one of the defendants while a children’s church service was in progress. At the time, Lichtenegger was 17, and a volunteer at the church’s vacation Bible school during the summer of 2014 and the victim, identified in the lawsuit as Jane Doe 31, was 13. Lichtenegger, has had past convictions as a juvenile, and is now serving a 17-year sentence for the crimes against the two plaintiffs. While past conviction records are closed, the lawsuit claims the defendant pleaded guilty to an earlier sexual felony as well as pleaded guilty to the assault of a 15-year-old developmentally disabled girl in 2012.
The lawsuit alleges that while the plaintiff’s parents trusted the church and thought their children were safe church while in attendance, the church knew of Lichtenegger’s previous extensive past crimes of sexual misconduct with kids, but nevertheless allowed him dangerous and unsupervised access to children in the congregation.
While the lawsuit alleges that “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,” Brad Russell, an attorney for the church said, “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”, though he admits that even though church protocol previously had dictated that Lichtenegger was to be in his father’s supervision at the church, his father was not there and he was not supervised on the day of the assault. Police were originally contacted by church officials after discovering the existence of a “sexting incident” between the defendant and Jane Doe 32, and learned about Jane Doe 31’s sexual assault during that investigation.
One of the parents of victim Jane Doe 33 released a statement Thursday, saying: “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.”
Randles stressed the importance of not allowing people with a known history of sexual misconduct with children to have access to kids, stating, “Pedophiles flock to places where children congregate.” The church has recently added more lighting, cameras and other safeguards; new members are screened to ensure they aren’t on Kansas’ sex offender registry, and background checks for family ministry volunteers have been expanded. Additionally, according to Russell, the church has adopted a policy of excluding people with sexual misconduct histories from church membership.