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The Finn resignation: 10 years too late, bishops face accountability

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Apr 21, 2015

Bishop Finn had to go. When he was convicted on criminal charges, he became the poster boy for the American bishops’ mishandling of the sex-abuse crisis. He was an irresistible target for critics of Catholicism: a walking, talking symbol of episcopal negligence.

The bishop’s defenders have said that he was not properly informed about the Ratigan case. That’s true, but it’s not an adequate defense. They say that his subordinates and counselors gave him bad advice. Also true, but irrelevant. We’ve heard those arguments too many times. The fact remains that when he was alerted to the fact that a troubled priest had engaged in inappropriate activities with young children, Bishop Finn did not take prompt and decisive action. He let the problem fester—as so many other bishops have let so many other problems fester—with disastrous results for everyone involved.

In Bishop Finn’s case this failure was particularly inexcusable because the results of negligence were so very well known. He could not get away with mumbling inanities about a “learning curve,” about not recognizing the severity of pedophilia, as other bishops had done a decade earlier. By 2011, every American bishop should have known that if there was one failure he absolutely must avoid, it was the failure to curb sexual abuse.

The announcement of Bishop Finn’s resignation comes, appropriately, on the same day as the news that the US bishops spent nearly $3 billion in the past decade to settle sex-abuse lawsuits. That reckoning understates the financial cost of the sex-abuse scandal, since it does not include the millions of dollars quietly paid out before 2004. And the financial cost, in turn, does not adequately summarize the staggering damage done to the Church. How many young lives were damaged? How many thousands were alienated from the faith? How many opportunities for evangelization were lost forever?

The truly remarkable thing about today’s announcement is not that Bishop Finn was forced to step down, but that he was the first American bishop forced to step down. (Cardinal Law left voluntarily in 2002; in fact when he originally submitted his resignation, it was declined.) Dozens of other bishops were as negligent, or worse. But they remained in office for years as the Church hierarchy came, ever so slowly, to the conclusion that even prelates must be held accountable.

Now that necessary conclusion has been reached. Last November, when the circumspect Cardinal Sean O’Malley told a nationwide television audience that Bishop Finn’s status was “a question that the Holy See needs to address urgently,” the embattled bishop must have known that his days as leader of the Kansas City diocese were numbered.

For the many Catholics who admire Bishop Finn’s strong defense of Catholic teaching, including myself, his case is tragic. For others who opposed his pastoral initiatives—such as the National Catholic Reporter, which, Bishop Finn had confirmed, had lost the right to describe itself as a “Catholic” publication—his departure has provided an occasion for unseemly delight. But the bishop’s staunch orthodoxy is not the issue here.

Nor has orthodoxy been the primary problem through the whole long, sad history of the sex-abuse scandal. Bishops from both the ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ wings of the US hierarchy have been exposed as negligent, or worse, in their handling of abusive priests. It is true that sympathetic reporters in the liberal secular media have spared a few prelates (Cardinal Mahony, Archbishop Weakland) from the grilling they deserved, while savaging others like Bishop Finn. Still, the bishops’ malfeasance was not caused by the media coverage; they brought the problem on themselves. And in the process they brought the problem on the faithful, on the universal Church.

In June 2002, when I attended the fateful meeting of the US bishops’ conference in Dallas, I noticed a broad consensus among the reporters in the crowded press room. Virtually all of us—liberals and conservatives, veterans and neophytes, Catholic and secular journalists—marveled together that the bishops didn’t “get it;” they did not realize that the American public saw them as the problem. It has taken more than a decade for that realization slowly to sink in. But now at last we have an unmistakable signal that the Vatican is ready to hold bishops accountable.

Many questions remain to be answered. Will other prelates follow Bishop Finn out the chancery doors? Will the critics of Catholicism pick a new target of opportunity? Will retired bishops whose negligence has been demonstrated still be treated with deference, as if nothing happened? Will Pope Francis continue to defend his appointment of a Chilean bishop accused of ignoring abuse, even as lay members of his sex-abuse commission threaten to resign?

And in the future, will bishops be held responsible for proper handling of their duties in areas other than sexual abuse? Once accountability becomes the norm, all sorts of changes are possible.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Frodo1945 - Apr. 26, 2015 7:47 AM ET USA

    You are right Phil, Bishop Finn had to go. IMO it is too little, too late. Three billion $ later many bishops have lost all credibility in my eyes. Comparisons to St Peter are laughable, if only they were like him. It is not about orthodoxy, it is about treating each person with the dignity they deserve. BTW, they cannot escape accountability in the end.

  • Posted by: Canonigo Regular - Apr. 23, 2015 7:42 AM ET USA

    Phil, for the first time I disagree with you-BIG TIME-99.9%. Finn did not have to go any more than Card. George had to go for the MacCormack affair. The only explanation for the difference is a vendetta by the progresivists -executed by the malformed laity in the diocese of KS-SJ and managed by the local NCR. Without their harping, no one would have demanded Finn's head for what he didn't do six months earlier. This sorry event is the same episcopal smoke screen. I'm surprised you don't get it.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Apr. 22, 2015 8:59 PM ET USA

    The Bishop in Chile has denied that he ever knew anything was going on with the priest he knew. Just because there's all kinds of noise claiming that he was there for the abuse doesn't mean it's true. I think the adage is, "Innocent until proven guilty" and that standard should apply here as well.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Apr. 22, 2015 5:06 PM ET USA

    I think of how St. Jerome was on a career path to the Papacy when his sharp tongue forced him to detour through the Judaean desert, where he did something more worthwhile, from God's perspective. If nothing else, Bishop Finn will stand as an example of someone who took complete accountability for his use of authority. It's sad, but it's also rare in any age. God Bless Bishop Finn.

  • Posted by: DCpa - Apr. 22, 2015 1:14 PM ET USA

    I'm sorry, Phil. While I almost always agree with you, not this time. Finn went to the cops himself, before the cops were on to the potential problem. The total period of time between the 1st knowledge--in the immediate aftermath of Ratigan's almost successful suicide-- was 5 months--during that time he was assigned absolutely away from kids--no reassignment of opportunity to do it again. There never was any physical contact conducted by Ratigan. This is a pretext! Why and what about Chile?

  • Posted by: geoffreysmith1 - Apr. 22, 2015 12:20 PM ET USA

    So, Bishop Finn had to go? For committing a single misdemeanour? Perhaps the first Bishop of Rome also should have been dismissed for the far worse offense of denying Christ?

  • Posted by: shrink - Apr. 21, 2015 8:25 PM ET USA

    Of course, Finn had to go. But is it really accountability. Where is the proportionate response? To what extent has each bishop and diocese been encumbered by abuse? We still DO NOT KNOW. Finn hangs while the USCCB still refuses to release the numbers of abuse cases and the settlement $$ apportioned by name to bishop and diocese. Phil, you are absolutely correct in your point above, but the accountability process remains a farce.