KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert Finn appeared in court today to answer to criminal charges alleging he did not tell police last year about child pornographic images that authorities later discovered on a diocesan priest’s computer.
Bishop Finn, who pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor count of failure of a mandated reporter to report, is the first U.S. Catholic bishop to be criminally charged with sheltering an alleged predatory priest, who authorities said kept hundreds of pornographic photographs of children on his laptop.
“The defendant was a mandated reporter and had reasonable cause to suspect a child may be subjected to abuse,” said Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker during a press conference earlier today.
The May 18 arrest of Father Shawn Ratigan, 45, resulted in the bishop commissioning a report by an outside investigator into the diocese’s response to concerns raised a year earlier about the priest’s behavior. Bishop Finn said he and diocesan lawyers cooperated with the law enforcement investigation.
The charge against Bishop Finn, 58, carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The diocese faces a fine of up to $5,000.
“Bishop Finn denies any criminal wrongdoing and has cooperated at all stages with law enforcement, the grand jury, the prosecutor’s office, and the Graves Commission. We will continue our efforts to resolve this matter,” said Gerald Handley, counsel for Bishop Finn, in a prepared statement posted on the diocese’s website.
“Months ago after the arrest of Shawn Ratigan, I pledged the complete cooperation of the diocese and accountability to law enforcement. We have carried this out faithfully. Diocesan staff and I have given hours of testimony before grand juries, delivered documents, and answered questions fully,” Bishop Finn said.
Baker said the evidence shows that, from Dec. 16, 2010 to May 11, 2011, Bishop Finn and the diocese had reasonable cause to suspect that a child may have been subjected to abuse.
“Now that the grand jury investigation has resulted in this indictment, my office will pursue this case vigorously because it is about protecting children. I want to ensure there are no future failures to report resulting in other unsuspecting victims,” said Baker, who sought to assure the local Catholic community that the case has nothing to with the Catholic faith.
“This is about the facts of this case, nothing more. This is about protecting children,” she said.
On Oct. 6, the Jackson County grand jury returned the indictments against Bishop Finn and the diocese, which is also charged with a misdemeanor count of failure of mandated reporter to report. The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office released the indictment after attorneys for Bishop Finn, and the diocese agreed to appear in court on a summons.
The chain of events that resulted in Father Ratigan’s arrest, and Bishop Finn’s indictment, began with a May 19, 2010 memo to the diocese from Julie Hess, the principal of St. Patrick’s School in Kansas City. Hess said the school community feared Father Ratigan, the pastor, was a “child molester,” and that several people had complained that he took compromising pictures of young children and allowed them to sit on his lap and reach into his pocket for candy.
Msgr. Robert Murphy, the vicar general of the diocese, briefed the bishop on the memo, but did not show it to him.
In December 2010, a computer technician working on Father Ratigan’s laptop found what he described as “disturbing images” of children, including pictures focusing on the children’s crotch areas, and a young girl with her genitals exposed.
According to a diocese-commissioned investigation, led by former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves, Msgr. Murphy described one image — but did not produce it — to a police captain who is a member of the diocese’s independent review board. Msgr. Murphy described a single photo of a nude child that was not sexual in nature.
According to Graves’ report, issued Sept. 1, Police Capt. Rick Smith said Msgr. Murphy informed him that Father Ratigan’s computer contained a single picture of a nude girl; that it was a family member or a niece; and that it was not a sexual pose.
However, Msgr. Murphy said he did not remember telling the police captain that the picture depicted a young relative or that it was not a sexual pose.
Either way, the report says Capt. Smith, after seeking advice from a police colleague, told Msgr. Murphy that a single photo in a non‐sexual pose might meet the definition of child pornography, but it would not likely be investigated or prosecuted.
The day after the images were found, Father Ratigan was ordered to meet with diocesan officials, but the next morning, he was found unconscious in his garage, with his motorcycle running, according to The Catholic Key, the diocesan newspaper.
Father Ratigan was placed on administrative leave and underwent a psychiatric evaluation. He was not permitted to return to this parish and prohibited from having any contact with children or using a camera and computer.
On May 12, after Father Ratigan allegedly violated those restrictions, Msgr. Murphy again contacted the police officer, who in turn submitted a report to the Cyber Crimes Against Children Unit. Six days later, police arrested the priest after finding a flash drive with several pictures of child pornography.
On Aug. 9, a federal grand jury in Missouri returned a 13-count indictment against Father Ratigan. The indictment alleges he exploited five minor victims to produce sexually explicit pictures of them. The victims ranged in age from two to 12 years old. The exploitation allegedly occurred at several locations – including a church choir loft – over a six-year period. Father Ratigan is also charged with two counts of possessing child pornography.
The Graves Commission found that diocesan leaders failed to follow their own policies and procedures in responding to reports of child sexual abuse.
“Individuals in positions of authority reacted to events in ways that could have jeopardized the safety of children in diocesan parishes, schools and families,” said the 141-page report.
Graves said the investigation “identified shortcomings, inaction and confusing procedures, but we believe Bishop Finn and the leadership of the diocese understand the gravity of the issues and take these recommendations seriously.” The bishop called the recommendations “comprehensive, thoughtful and detailed.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from New Bedford, Massachusetts.