On Oct. 14, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., was indicted for failure to report suspected child abuse, a charge linked to the arrest in May 2011 of Father Shawn Ratigan, a diocesan priest, for possession of child pornography. The New York Times noted that it was the “first time in the 25-year history of the Church’s sex-abuse scandals that the leader of an American diocese has been held criminally liable for the behavior of a priest he supervised.”
Bishop Finn and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph have each been charged with one misdemeanor count for failure to report the priest to the authorities. The local prosecutor as well as the Times and The Kansas City Star have underscored the unprecedented nature of the indictment. Public anger has been stirred by news reports like an Oct. 14 Times story, which stressed that Bishop Finn “knew of the photographs last December but did not turn them over to the police until May.”
There are a number of disputed details regarding the diocese’s handling of the priest. Bishop Finn has publicly apologized for failing to place Father Ratigan on administrative leave earlier, and for then placing him in a retreat center, where he continued to have access to children. An independent review of the diocese’s actions commissioned by Bishop Finn concluded that the diocese failed to adhere to its own policies for addressing concerns that might involve abuse.
However, the report contested the assertion that Bishop Finn knew the priest possessed any child pornography before his arrest.
Into this firestorm comes Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., a close friend of Bishop Finn’s who has worked with him in past years to confront a host of challenges, from legal abortion to pornography addiction. At the end of October, Archbishop Naumann published a column in his archdiocesan paper, The Leaven, “Coverage of Recent Indictment Far From Objective,” raising questions about whether Bishop Finn could get a fair hearing. He spoke Oct. 25 with Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond.
Some Catholics are applauding the recent indictment of Bishop Finn as a necessary, if belated, effort to hold Church leaders accountable for failing to protect children. But others assert that the indictment — a rare misdemeanor charge of failure to report a suspicion of abuse — is patently unfair. Is the prosecutor holding a Church leader to a higher standard? Will this indictment set a dangerous precedent?
A story in The Kansas (City) Star on the indictment could find only one other instance of someone convicted under this law, and that person was convicted on a “host of related charges.” There is not a lot of precedent for this.
What gets lost is that it was the diocese that did report the priest. Unfortunately, in hindsight — as Bishop Finn would now agree — they took that action later than they should have.
I am not clear what the threshold of proof is for this charge. People in the legal community say there has to be some evidence of criminal intent.
It’s not enough that the accused failed to report a suspicion in a timely fashion — he had to intend harm. From what I know, there is no possibly of that.
No one has ever suggested that we think anyone in the Church should be held above the law, but it’s odd that this statute has never been successfully deployed except as part of an array of charges. We have to keep in mind the issue of criminal intent and not look for a scapegoat.
Since Father Ratigan’s arrest, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has been very active in the diocese. But you have expressed concerns about SNAP’s role. Other critics have charged that SNAP has a close relationship with trial lawyers. In the past, Forbes magazine has documented this relationship. But when the local media recently asked SNAP to provide a list of donors, the organization said contributors were “victims” and their identity thus could not be divulged.
My take is that they have a hatred toward the Church. Their mission is no longer to assist victims, but is to strike at the Church and wound the Church.
But in the early days of the clergy abuse crisis, SNAP was viewed as a voice crying in the wilderness.
In my experience, they have never acknowledged a false accusation. As far as they are concerned, if you are accused, you are guilty. They don’t take anyone off the list. They don’t serve themselves well by insisting that every accusation is true.
This is the same group taking the Pope before the world court in The Hague.
How outlandish is that? It shows the intent of the group.
I have victims who have come to me. They no longer want to go to SNAP because it’s only interested in fostering anger, and building a case against the Church, not serving the victims well.
People are hesitant — and I’m hesitant — to say this.
But I am saying what many bishops are thinking. They are afraid to say it because SNAP will set themselves up on their doorstep.
What have you learned from this painful process?
We have to follow our policies and procedures faithfully and conscientiously. Dioceses have good policies in place. If we follow them, we can avoid these problems. It is very damaging when we don’t do that.
It’s good that the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph hired an ombudsman to investigate allegations, which is a difficult process. You are trying to be fair to the priest, and you need a timely investigation. In general, our people are not trained as investigators. They are operating out of goodwill.
In a column in your archdiocesan newspaper, you suggested that hostile political forces played some role in this unprecedented indictment.
The local prosecutor is now being hailed by The New York Times for showing great courage. If you read that paper’s editorial page, you would receive the impression that the prosecutor discovered this on her own.
It seems that there was quite a bit of political pressure on the prosecutor to be tough on anyone committing crimes against children. Coverage of the case in The Kansas (City) Star, victims’ groups and public sentiment created that pressure.
[Regarding The Kansas City Star] there has been a double standard.
For example, even though more serious allegations were raised against Planned Parenthood and Dr. [George] Tiller [regarding an alleged underreporting of suspected statutory rape linked to underage patients visiting Tiller’s business], The Kansas (City) Star did nothing comparable to investigate.
Instead, the paper saw its role as coming to the defense of Planned Parenthood. The paper received the “Maggie” award for excellence in reporting on reproductive issues.
When a paper has that kind of relationship with an organization like Planned Parenthood, and the Church stands against what that organization represents, we can’t expect to get objective treatment. This crusade against Bishop Finn is, in part, ideological.
Yet, in media coverage, I’ve also noticed that the enemies of the Church are often shocked by the fidelity of Catholics to the Church. They thought 2002 would deal a deathblow.
In the early days of the clergy abuse crisis, many bishops expressed regret that they had listened to the guidance of psychologists and returned clerical predators to ministry. The independent report commissioned by Bishop Finn to review problems with the diocese’s response to reports about Father Ratigan’s behavior raised some questions about the psychological evaluation the priest received.
We have learned that expert testimony and analysis may be helpful in trying to care for the individual priest, but it certainly is not helpful in deciding whether a priest is suitable for active ministry.
For one thing, the therapist is nowhere around when the heat is on. There is a natural bias within the therapeutic community: The goal is to get people well and restore them. Some therapists may take an overly optimistic view of what is possible. In fairness to them, we’ve learned a lot about these deficiencies in people. There isn’t a good record of rehabilitation.
There is a spectrum of behavior, from confirmed “pedophiles” to someone manufacturing child pornography to boundary violations. According to Church policies, regardless of where an individual may be on that spectrum, they are treated the same: You are not able to serve in priestly ministry.
Boundary violations could lead to the removal of a priest? The issue of whether boundary violations should prompt removal surfaced in this case and also in the recent Philadelphia grand jury indictment.
Could is the important word. That is not what the Dallas Charter mandates. You have to place this issue in the larger context of an individual case: what you know and didn’t know about a priest. Without that careful prudential judgment, anyone could say anything about anyone and that person would be sidelined.
Could a priest be removed because of a boundary violation? Absolutely. Should it be standard protocol? I don’t think so. It should be taken seriously and investigated.
My own view is that we have to be overly cautious. If we are presented with troubling issues, the safest course is to engage the proper authorities to evaluate them. We need to get an authoritative opinion.
It’s hard for most people to realize that: the complexity that confronts a bishop — to be fair to priests and also vigilant to protect children. The greater concern is the protection of children, but the rights of (the) priest need to be upheld.
You realize that one misstep in this area can jeopardize everything else you have worked for.
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.