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Did Bishop Finn deserve indictment?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Oct 28, 2011

Two weeks have passed since the indictment of Kansas City’s Bishop Robert Finn. The bishop’s critics are demanding his resignation, while his defenders protest his innocence. Let’s step back a pace, and put the matter in perspective.

The indictment of an American bishop is a big story—a huge story, an unprecedented story. Yet oddly enough, apart from Bishop Finn’s most vociferous critics and defenders, most American Catholics seem to be taking it in stride. During the past month, 4 others stories on the Catholic World News site have attracted more readers. In fact, a CWN report on the desultory Supreme Court discussion of the all-male Catholic priesthood claimed nearly twice as many readers as our report on the Finn indictment.

Are Catholics looking elsewhere for their coverage of this story? (That would be dangerous, since so few media sources offer a reasonably accurate and unbiased perspective.) Or are they simply exhausted, after a decade of headlines about accusations and lawsuits and pleas and settlements related to the sex-abuse crisis? I don’t know. I do know that this story is immensely important, because for the first time an American Catholic bishop will be judged not by friendly colleagues, nor by angry editorialists, but by a jury of ordinary citizens.

Try to imagine how readers might have reacted, 10 or 12 years ago, to the news that a Catholic bishop had been indicted on criminal charges. In the 1980s it would have been nearly unimaginable. By 2002 it loomed as a possibility, as the abyss of the sex-abuse scandal opened under our feet. Still, while dozens of bishops were raked over the coals for their mishandling of the scandal, none was indicted—until this month. In several other cases, a grand jury looked askance at a bishop’s performance. But in every other case, the grand jury—probably following the prosecutor’s suggestions, as grand juries usually do—decided against criminal charges.

Why was Bishop Finn the first to be indicted? Even by the most hostile appraisal, his offenses were not nearly as grave as those of many other prelates. In 2002, we learned to our horror that dozens of American bishops had sheltered priests from prosecution, lied to parishioners about the abusive priests’ backgrounds, and assigned priests to parish ministry even after reading fat dossiers, detailing multiple incidents of known abuse. The worst that can be said about Bishop Finn is that he should have known that Father Shawn Ratigan was a threat to children.

So why has Bishop Finn been singled out for prosecution? The political climate in Missouri may be an important factor. Bishop Finn has made some enemies since he took over the leadership of the Kansas City diocese in 2005, with his unapologetic statements of Catholic orthodoxy. He decried abortion as “the most horrendous taking of human life in history.” He compared the presidential election of 2008 with the Battle of Lepanto in its importance for Christian civilization. He suggested that Catholic-school teachers should pledge their support for the teaching magisterium, and eased out a number of chancery employees who were not ready to support a drive for orthodoxy. He became a special target for criticism by liberal Catholics and by secularists hostile to the Catholic enterprise. So it was relatively easy for the Jackson County prosecutor, Jean Peters Baker, to paint Bishop Finn as the figure wearing the black hat; she could be fully confident that editorial writers—not just at Missouri secular newspapers, but also at the National Catholic Reporter and even the New York Times would support her—as indeed they did.

But however popular the indictment may be (at least in some circles), the prosecutor will have tremendous difficulty obtaining a conviction. Unless Bishop Finn agrees to a plea-bargain deal, Jean Peters Baker must convince a jury that the bishop intended to allow harm to children. The available evidence does not support that conclusion. Exactly what did Bishop Finn do—or fail to do? A recent KCUR radio report gave this typically tendentious summary:

Bishop Finn is alleged to have known that Father Shawn Ratigan had taken sexually explicit photographs of children for several months before reporting to police. The indictments also allege Ratigan was allowed to work with children after he was removed from St. Patrick's Catholic School.

But the “facts” highlighted in that report are precisely the key claims disputed by Bishop Finn and the Kansas City diocese. The bishop never saw Father Ratigan’s photos, and he was told that they were not pornographic. Nevertheless he pulled Father Ratigan out of active ministry and told him to stay away from children. When he found that the priest was violating that directive, he reported him to police.

That’s right: it was the Kansas City diocese, under the direction of Bishop Finn, that reported the priest to police. Father Ratigan now faces child-pornography charges because the diocese alerted prosecutors. Far from protecting the priest from prosecutors, the bishop and the diocese led the prosecutors to him!

So is the indictment of Bishop Finn entirely unjustifiable? Unfortunately, no. Bishop Finn has acknowledged that he erred in his treatment of the Ratigan case. An independent inquiry, commissioned by the bishop, found that the diocese had violated its own rules in responding to complaints about the priest. The bishop and the diocese mishandled the affair; that much is beyond dispute.

Bishop Finn was informed in December 2010 that Father Ratigan had some questionable photos on his laptop. True, the bishop was told that the pictures were not pornographic. But he knew—or certainly should have known—that they were disturbing. They were disturbing enough so that the technician who fixed the priest’s computer felt obliged to report them. They were disturbing enough so the Father Ratigan attempted suicide when they were discovered. They were disturbing enough so that Father Ratigan was barred from further contact with children. If the photos were that disturbing, the bishop had ample reason to believe that Father Ratigan could pose a danger to children—particularly since the priest was known to be an avid photographer, and it was only reasonable to wonder whether he might have taken some of the pictures himself, using children in his parish as nude models.

Under the circumstances, the diocese should have opened a full investigation of the case. At an absolute minimum, Father Ratigan’s case should have been brought before the diocesan review board. But the vicar general, Msgr. Robert Murphy, chose to circumvent the review board and handle the case privately. Apparently Bishop Finn supported that decision; at least he did not overrule it. (It is worth noticing, however, that after further investigation of the case, the bishop relieved Msgr. Murphy of responsibility for handling sex-abuse complaints.)

The sex-abuse scandal exploded upon the Catholic Church in the US because bishops habitually chose to handle priestly abusers quietly, informally, sympathetically—rather than following the clear rules laid out by civil and canon law. At Dallas in 2002, the American bishops bound themselves to a new, stricter set of rules. But those rules are still only as good as the bishops who enforce them.

Now we learn that an American bishop, as late as 2011, was still ignoring the rules, still handling an accusation informally, still giving the benefit of the doubt to a priest who might pose a danger to children. The indictment of Bishop Finn may be politically motivated, and may not stand up to legal scrutiny. But the bishop's gross mishandling of this case cannot be lightly dismissed.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Oct. 29, 2011 12:39 PM ET USA

    Let's not forget that from the beginning, saints have been purified by trial. This is to build humility into holiness. Let's pray for Bishop Finn and all bishops.

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Oct. 29, 2011 11:18 AM ET USA

    More evidence that Bishop Finn was unfairly targeted: According to a letter by the parish school's principal, Ratigan was at the school "every day for long periods of time." The letter also outlined many pages of "inappropriate conduct with children." Under Missouri law, the principal and teachers were REQUIRED to report potential abuse to police! Yet the prosecutor has given a PASS to the very individuals who saw him "every day"; yet she went after the "big fish" who probably saw him 2-3x/year.

  • Posted by: cincinnatus - Oct. 29, 2011 10:37 AM ET USA

    Two points, Phil: 1. Your opinion on what Bp. Finn SHOULD have done is, salva amicitia, no more than that, particularly when you don't back it up with any analysis of the appplicable internal Church procedures. Without that analysis, you could just as easily have said that all internal procedures were complied with. Righteous (possibly) indignation is not nearly as effective demonstrated analytical rigor. 2. Ever heard the lawyer's maxim that "a determined DA could indict a ham sandwich"?

  • Posted by: GymK - Oct. 29, 2011 1:37 AM ET USA

    "Now we learn that an American bishop … was still ignoring the rules, still handling an accusation informally." You said it! Enough is enough! If parents can no longer trust our Bishops to protect the children in their care, let the police handle it. And please stop using the worn out canard about "how much good he has done in the past..." It doesn't matter. These men must wake up and take responsibility for their actions and be responsible to the people they (are supposed to) serve.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 28, 2011 8:58 PM ET USA

    While this is not among the most egregious of cases by a long shot, and Bishop Finn has done much good in other areas, it is true that the case cannot be handled lightly. It seems that Bishop Finn violated his own policies in this case, and his inability to be appropriately sensitive not only to the moral consequences but to the political consequences of insufficient action to protect the innocent is disturbing. It's a shame no matter how you look at it.

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