Catholic Culture News
Catholic Culture News

Will a criminal conviction finally get the American bishops' attention?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Sep 07, 2012

So now an American bishop is a convicted criminal. Do you suppose there’s any chance the other bishops will finally get the message?

Bishop Robert Finn has been convicted in a court of law for doing what scores of other American bishops have done in the recent past. It’s true that Bishop Finn will not serve actual jail time, and his criminal record will be erased after he completes a term of probation; but the judge had the authority to put him behind bars for a year.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, Msgr. William Lynn is already behind bars, for doing what his cardinal-archbishop apparently told him to do.

Some intelligent observers argue that Bishop Finn (and Msgr. Lynn, for that matter) should not have been convicted. But I am inclined to accept the judgment of the courts—as Bishop Finn, at least, has apparently done. Any loyal Catholic should also be troubled by the prospect of a secular court passing judgment on a bishop’s exercise of episcopal ministry. But in this case there is no doubt in my mind that civil officials are emboldened to police the bishops because the bishops have so calamitously failed to police themselves.

What did Bishop Finn do, and what did Msgr. Lynn do, to merit punishment as criminals? Both of them failed—so the courts tell us—to follow up responsibly on complaints of sexual abuse by priests. During the “Long Lent” of 2002 the American public learned that dozens of American bishops—a solid majority of the hierarchy, by all indications—had been guilty of the same sort of negligence. Yet even today, after a decade of painful experience, the bishops continue to tell us that the answer to the sex-abuse scandal is to hold priests responsible, and even to hold lay people responsible.

Wrong! The answer to the sex-abuse scandal—the answer that the American hierarchy still has not provided—is to hold bishops responsible.

Measured against the standards of 2002, Bishop Finn’s transgressions were minor. We don’t know exactly how much information about the unhealthy proclivities of Father Shawn Ratigan had percolated up through the filters of the diocesan bureaucracy. The bishop had received reports about photos on the priest’s computer, but he had not seen the photos themselves. He had received a few warnings about the priest’s unusual behavior, but he had not seen conclusive evidence of misconduct. Compare his case with the dozens of cases unearthed in 2002, in which bishops had received dozens of complaints, from dozens of victims, and still had neither reported to police nor removed the offending priest from ministry.

American prosecutors are more likely to pursue charges against Catholic prelates aggressively these days, largely because of the steep decline in public respect for the hierarchy. But Bishop Finn was certainly not the first American prelate to face criminal investigation. Several bishops escaped prosecution only because the statute of limitations protected them. A few reached plea-bargain deals. Sooner or later an ambitious district attorney was bound to make the charges stick. Bishop Finn was not an egregious example of episcopal negligence; far from it. He just happened to be caught with the short straw.

So Bishop Finn stands convicted for the sort of offense that was exposed routinely ten years ago. Is this because the Church has taken a tougher stance? Not at all; the bishop was convicted by a secular court. The Dallas Charter was not a factor. In fact Bishop Finn could not have been disciplined, nor even rebuked, under the terms of the Dallas Charter. When they met in June 2002 to set forth a tough new policy on sexual abuse, the American bishops imposed new disciplinary requirements on priests and deacons and religious and schoolteachers and coaches and choir members and mothers and fathers and children and janitors. But they did not impose new disciplinary requirements on themselves.

Since the turn of the century, American dioceses have paid out roughly $2 billion in legal settlements to sex-abuse victims. Two billion dollars! Think how far that money might have gone to feed the poor, to care for the sick, to educate young people in the faith! Instead, how many parishes have been shut down, how many parochial schools have been closed, how many projects for evangelization have been set aside, because the ravaged diocesan budgets could not accommodate them? Keep in mind that in all those expensive lawsuits, the plaintiffs would not have won those huge awards simply by showing that they had suffered abuse. They were also required to persuade the juries that they suffered abuse because diocesan officials were negligent in supervising their priests. In other words, the secular courts held the bishops responsible, even if the bishops were not willing to take that step themselves.

Yet the financial settlements have not been the most painful loss for the Church. Still more grievous has been the loss of credibility, the loss of faith, the loss of souls. We may never know, in this life, how many young people have turned away from the sacraments, how many Americans have stopped listening to the bishops’ teaching, as a result of this scandal. The damage is literally incalculable.

But the damage is done, you might say. It’s in the past. It’s time to move on. Really? Then why does public confidence in the hierarchy remain at a low ebb? Why do criminal investigators and investigative journalists continue to dig out new evidence of abuse and cover-ups? Can we safely attribute all these charges and suspicions to anti-Catholic bias—as we naively did a decade ago?

Let me ask the question a different way: We know that the American bishops have been hurt and humiliated by the ugly revelations of the past decade. We know that they have apologized and instituted new procedures. But do we know that they have learned the proper lesson?

Bishop Finn is a convicted criminal today because when he was presented with evidence that would have prompted a responsible supervisor to take action, he looked the other way—just as dozens of other bishops had looked the other way in the past, when they had been presented with far more compelling evidence.

So what does the typical American bishop do today, when he learns of a problem that calls for decisive action?

  • When a priest is found using pornography, or spotted in a gay bar—not with children, but with adult homosexuals?
  • When a theology professor at the city’s Catholic college teaches students that homosexual unions are morally equivalent to marriage?
  • When a pastor engages in routine, flagrant abuse of liturgical norms, ad-libbing his own Eucharistic ceremonies?
  • When the leader of a local religious congregation announces her support for the ordination of women?
  • When a prominent Catholic politician joins in a rally for legal abortion?

Does the typical American bishop take action quickly to address such problems? Does he take public action to redress a public scandal? Or does he look the other way? Because if our bishops are still inclined to look the other way when confronted with serious abuses—and these are abuses, too—I’m afraid they still haven’t got the message.

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Sep. 12, 2012 9:43 AM ET USA

    Excellent point. It is sad when the secular authorities exhibit higher moral standards than the church and its leaders. You're so right. When will they get with the program? How many scandals will it take to get their attention?

  • Posted by: geoffreysmith1 - Sep. 08, 2012 3:16 PM ET USA

    The message I'm getting from all this is that Bishop Finn and several other members of the hierarchy are just not suitable persons to be in charge of dioceses. The Holy See should give serious consideration to 'accepting the resignation' of all implicated bishops and appointing blameless ones in their place.

  • Posted by: dfp3234574 - Sep. 08, 2012 8:58 AM ET USA

    As someone who as studied the Finn case as much as anybody, I can say that Bishop Finn got in trouble because the people below him did not do what they were supposed to do. Not one, but TWO, computer technicians saw the criminal images and did not call the police. Why not? (Read the news. Computer techs call the police all the time.) Then there was Msgr. Murphy, the 'point man' on everything, who should have called police, and didn't. Then there was the school principal, who wrote a 4+ page ...

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 08, 2012 8:26 AM ET USA

    And thank you Mr. Lawler for your frank discussion of this issue and your appreciation and defense of the virtue of justice. These are painful times for Catholics in general, and even more so for the victims and families whose trust and respect for sacred persons has been decimated. No doubt about it, we have come to this point due to extraordinary, apalling negligence and perhaps something even more egregious in certain cases. There can be no greater indicator of disorientation than this.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 08, 2012 8:15 AM ET USA

    An unfortunate error appeared in my post. Rather than malevolent, "benevolent" was the intended word. It is unfortunate that Bishop Finn has become the first "criminal" American bishop. I do not know him but in person, but he is certainly among the more exemplary bishops today. Unfortunately, this whole mess continues to exhibit the urgerncy for our episcopacy to "get with the program." Child abuse by clerics must not be tolderated in any way, shape or form. No exceptions-ever.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 07, 2012 8:42 PM ET USA

    In one of life's unpleasant ironies one of the least malevolent of the offenders sets the precedent of shame. The bishops had the opportunity to police themselves; now they are policed by the secular courts. Disturbing, undesirable, disgraceful and now absolutely necessary. Another benchmark of decline. Pray for orientation for our prelates. Doing the right things for the right reasons is much easier if one thinks, prays, lives and believes rightly in concert with God's generous love.

  • Posted by: meegan2136289 - Sep. 07, 2012 5:57 PM ET USA

    "Any loyal Catholic should also be troubled by...a secular court passing judgment on a bishop’s exercise of episcopal ministry." If "episcopal ministry" involves turning a blind eye to a sexual predator "priest," I'm not in the least troubled by secular authorities intervening. In fact, I welcome it. I'm astounded by Phil Lawler's seemingly benign view of Finn's negligence. After a tsunami of revelations about priest sex crimes, not investigating such a matter is not a "minor" transgression.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 07, 2012 4:35 PM ET USA

    I remember reading in World History how the Church and the secular authorities (kings) constantly conflicted over the state's authority to try the clergy. At this point, I have to say, as long as the judiciary is reasonably free of corruption, I have faith in it to pass judgment on bishops and everyone else. Bishop Finn apparently understands that he messed up. I think that the rest of the College of Bishops in this country are well warned. Hope it does them good.

  • Posted by: Mack - Sep. 07, 2012 3:16 PM ET USA

    Your treatment of Bishop Finn is grossly unfair. He cannot be lumped in with bishops who turn a blind eye to sinful behaviour at all. He is a very Holy Man. What he is guilty of is delegating badly and receiving bad advice from trusted subordinates. Does this warrant a criminal way.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Sep. 07, 2012 2:57 PM ET USA

    And just where is the Vatican in all of this? Do we now look to the state and federal courts to maintain standard WITHIN OUR CHURCH? No comments from Rome? How can events like "World Youth Day" be promoted when the administrative arm of the Catholic Church cannot even give reasonable oversight to Bishops/