Bishop Robert Finn on Friday became the highest-ranking Catholic official in the nation to face criminal prosecution in the decades-old child sexual abuse scandal — an action that stunned many inside and outside the church.
A Jackson County grand jury on Oct. 6 secretly indicted both Finn and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph on misdemeanor charges of failure to report child abuse in a case involving a priest facing child pornography charges.
Let me be clear. I’m a Lutheran pastor, and I’ve taught clergy and lay leaders in a variety of denominations — including Roman Catholics — about child abuse and the need to file a report when you have reason to believe that abuse has taken place. When a bishop or any other church official fails to report suspicions of abuse, that’s a crime.
End of story.
Not filing a report when you suspect abuse has taken place is a crime, and not the kind of crime the church takes refuge in. St. Paul spent time imprisoned, but not because he was protecting a pedophile. Martin Luther King spent time behind bars, but not to safeguard the image of the church from a pastor who produced child pornography.
From what has been described in the media to date, Bishop Finn clearly put the reputation of the church ahead of the safety of the children in the church’s care. From the KC Star:
In May 2010, the principal of a Catholic school complained to the diocese about what she described as Ratigan’s inappropriate actions around children. Other than counseling Ratigan to moderate his conduct, however, his church supervisors took little substantive action.
In December, diocesan officials found what prosecutors later alleged was child pornography on Ratigan’s computer. The diocese said it contacted a police officer and described “one of the more disturbing images” from Ratigan’s computer, asking whether it constituted child porn, and the officer said it did not. Police later confirmed that the officer was Capt. Richard Smith, but said that he was told only about one photo and was not made aware that other, more graphic images were stored on Ratigan’s computer.
The church relieved Ratigan of his duties as pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in the Northland and assigned him to live at an Independence mission house. While there, according to a federal indictment, he allegedly attempted to take pornographic photos of a 12-year-old girl.
On May 11, church officials notified police about the troubling images on Ratigan’s computer.
Ratigan was charged in Clay County in May with three counts of possession of child pornography. Federal grand jurors later indicted him on 13 counts of production, attempted production and possession of child porn.
After Ratigan’s arrest, Finn publicly apologized for his handling of the case.
Last month, a diocese-commissioned investigation led by former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves found that diocesan leaders failed to follow their own policies and procedures in responding to reports of child sexual abuse.
The investigation found that “individuals in positions of authority reacted to events in ways that could have jeopardized the safety of children in diocesan parishes, schools and families.”
Finn and his lawyers put forward the many ways in which Finn has cooperated with the authorities — but note that all this cooperation all happened AFTER the authorities learned of Ratigan’s activities. Said Finn: “After the arrest of Shawn Ratigan, I pledged the complete cooperation of the diocese and accountability to law enforcement.”
Isn’t that sweet? “After the arrest . . .” But Finn knew of the problem well before Ratigan was arrested. A little cooperation *before* the arrest would have been not just nice, but highly appropriate.
Finn doesn’t have the clout or history in the church that Boston’s former Cardinal Bernard Law has, nor is his health as poor as Philadelphia’s Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua’s. Law was given a post in Rome and thus was able to resign his position in Boston and avoid facing a judge and jury there to answer criminal charges for his actions (or inactions) in the case of James Porter. According to the grand jury in Philadelphia, Philadelphia’s former Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua avoided a criminal indictment there solely because of his declining health (pdf pp. 115ff.):
We would like to hold Cardinal Bevilacqua accountable as well. The Grand Jurors have no doubt that his knowing and deliberate actions during his tenure as Archbishop also endangered thousands of children in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Msgr. Lynn [Bevilacqua's chief assistant for matters like this] was carrying out the Cardinal’s policies exactly as the Cardinal directed. In most of the cases we reviewed from the previous grand jury report, Cardinal Bevilacqua knew substantially everything that Msgr. Lynn knew about the danger posed by the accused priests.
Cardinal Bevilacqua’s health is also a consideration. William Sasso, his long-time lawyer, told the Grand Jury that the 87-year-old suffers from dementia. Mr. Sasso testified that Cardinal Bevilacqua requires “24/7 nursing care” and rarely leaves the seminary where he lives. He said the Cardinal has failed to recognize Mr. Sasso when he visits. The attorney testified that he has not seen the Cardinal at a public event for nearly three years – not even at the installation of Bishop Senior in July 2010.
Mr. Sasso told us that he had recently spoken to Cardinal Bevilacqua’s doctors, A.J. DiMarino and Bradley Fenton. According to Mr. Sasso, both physicians advised him that it would be “extremely traumatic” for the Cardinal to testify before the Grand Jury, and that any testimony he gave would be unreliable. Mr. Sasso testified that Cardinal Bevilacqua had not even been informed of the Grand Jury proceedings because his doctors had advised against it.
Based on these issues relating to the evidence and the Cardinal’s health, we have reluctantly decided not to recommend charges against the former Archbishop.
Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! 2It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
I grieve for the children put at risk by Bishop Finn’s inaction. I don’t know Finn at all, though I know a number of his priests. I also grieve for them, as they must bear the burden of Finn’s failed attempt to hide the predatory priest from the law.
But it’s about time a bishop faced a judge for failing to report allegations of child abuse.
No, let me restate that. It’s well past time for a bishop to be indicted for trying to sweep things under the ecclesiastical carpet and pretend there’s no problem here. Even so, this indictment is better late than never. I’ll leave the last word to the prophetic voice of the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, J.C.D., C.A.D.C (who ought to have been named a bishop himself long ago) (emphasis in the original):
There will continue to be abuse by the clergy as long as the ecclesiastical environment that allowed it to flourish continues as a closed, hierarchical system enshrouded in secrecy and sustained by the power of fear. As sexual abuse cases surface in country after country the patterns of cover-up, collusion and denial are the same. This is not proof of an international conspiracy or a secret order sent to all bishops as some would have it, but of something more radical. The world-wide outrage, the seemingly countless lawsuits and the close examination by various academics are directed at the status quo in three areas: the essential role of the clerical sub-culture, hierarchical governance and the efficacy of the theological dogmas that support them. The most realistic response is also the most fearful to the hierarchy and to many clergy and laity as well: a thorough, fearless examination of the heretofore untouchable system of power and control and the closed, secretive and often privileged world at the heart of the institutional church. There is really only one vital question: why is this system and the men who sustain it more important than the emotional, physical and spiritual welfare of a single, innocent child?