KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., was found guilty on Sept. 6 of a misdemeanor for failing to report evidence of child abuse by a priest in his diocese.
The case marked the first instance in American history where a bishop has been found guilty of mishandling sex-abuse complaints.
Bishop Finn faced two misdemeanor charges, one of which was dismissed by Judge John Torrence, who gave him two years of probation, then suspended the sentence. Bishop Finn was also ordered to receive training on reporting abuse.
In a statement following the ruling, Bishop Finn expressed his deep regret and pledged to "both personally and in my capacity as bishop, to take every reasonable step to protect children from any abuse or misconduct perpetrated by clergy, diocesan employees or volunteers."
The case was set to be heard Sept. 24 in a jury trial. But in a surprising, last-minute development, the defense agreed to a bench trial Sept. 6, paving the way for the dismissal of the misdemeanor charges against the diocese. Judge Torrence presided at the brief one-day trial without a jury.
While many news organizations announced that Bishop Finn was convicted, diocesan spokesman Jack Smith explained that the court entered what’s called a "‘suspended imposition of sentence,’ a process unique to Missouri and just a few other states. It means that there is no conviction and no sentence is imposed, as long as the terms of probation are fulfilled. If Bishop Finn fulfills the requirements of his probation, his record will be expunged."
The charges in this case stem from the bishop’s failure to adequately respond to evidence and concerns about a diocesan priest’s troubling behavior with children.
In December 2010, a diocesan technician discovered a cache of disturbing photographs of children on the priest’s laptop after it was brought in to be fixed.
The priest was placed on leave from his parish, but the community was not informed about the photographs. He was placed in a retreat house and told to stay away from computers and children, but repeatedly violated those restrictions, leading the diocese to contact the police in May 2011.
Father Ratigan, 46, pleaded guilty in August to four counts of producing child pornography and one count of attempting to produce child pornography. He faces a maximum 30 years in federal prison for each count, but sentencing has not yet been scheduled.
Bishop Finn’s charges of failing to report abuse relate to the fact that, in 2011, Bishop Finn, in a letter, acted to keep Father Ratigan away from children. It was that letter which was the main source of evidence that the bishop clearly knew of the priest’s issues and didn’t report them to law enforcement officials.
The Missouri Child Abuse Reporting Statute reads, "When a minister or agent designated pursuant to Subsection 3 of this section has reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been or may be subjected to abuse or neglect under circumstances required to be reported … the minister or designated agent shall immediately report or cause a report to be made."
The diocese’s policy for handling sexual misconduct and the code of ethical standards for clergy and parish and diocesan employees requires all Church leaders to follow proper reporting requirements of suspected abuse under Missouri law.
"It’s a sad day," said Martin Nussbaum of Rothgerber, Johnson & Lyons in Colorado Springs, Colo., who has handled dozens of cases nationwide involving the Catholic Church. "It’s become expected by force of law and the culture that these kinds of things must be reported. And that’s a good thing."
Bishop Finn, in a statement released through the diocese, seemed eager for people to understand that much has been learned. He plainly stated that the "diocesan process and procedures in place at the time did not adequately identify the necessity to inform the Children’s Division of Father Ratigan’s behavior in a more timely manner."
For that, he said he was "truly sorry."
In light of the shortcomings of the diocesan response, Bishop Finn said he has now provided for the establishment of an independent ombudsman to report any known or suspected abuse by any clergy, employee or volunteer of the diocese, as required by law. He has also established the diocesan director position of the Office of Child & Youth Protection to develop and implement any policies in this regard.
But none of this will be forgotten, according to Charles Zech, director of Villanova University’s Center for the Study of Church Management. He said this case is a clear alarm to bishops all around the country that zero tolerance must mean zero tolerance.
"Prosecutors have to be paying attention to this," he said. "But I assume the bishops have gotten the message now."
Zech said he had "mixed emotions" about the case. "What he did was wrong," said Zech. "It was poor oversight, but not on the level of some of the things we’ve heard about."
Bill Donohue of the Catholic League has suggested that this case has more to do with politics than justice. In a statement on the organization’s website, Donohue pointed out, "The Catholic League supports harsh penalties for child sexual abusers and for those who cover it up," he said. "But it also supports equal justice for all, and given what we know of what is going on in many other communities, religious as well as secular, we find the chorus of condemnations targeting Bishop Finn to be as unfair as they are contrived."
Donohue pointed out in a statement that, in 2007, an investigation by The Associated Press of teacher sexual misconduct revealed that Missouri school districts were guilty of "backroom deals" that allowed molesting teachers to "quietly move on."
But whether or not there is equal justice for Bishop Finn, the case, said Zech, "reignites people’s anger" and "hurts the credibility of the Church."
Nussbaum said he believed "most bishops have already gotten the message about child abuse."
Matt Archbold writes
He blogs at NCRegister.com.