Archbishop Joseph Naumann Replaces Finn, Signalling Change in Missouri Diocese

On Tuesday, the beleaguered Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph got a new interim leader, Archbishop Joseph Naumann. Naumann is stepping in to replace Bishop Finn, whose resignation was accepted by the Vatican two days ago. Finn has been at the center of a fierce debate about how he dealt with Fr. Ratigan, a priest in his diocese who took hundreds of pornographic images of children.

In 2011, Finn pled guilty to a misdemeanor of failure to report suspected abuse, becoming the first American bishop to be found criminally liable for abuse that occurred under his watch.

Finn's critics say that he deliberately ignored clear signs that Ratigan was a sexual predator, and that the Vatican was unconscionably slow in removing him. Finn's defenders say that the blame belongs with his underlings, who didn't give him a clear picture of what was happening, and that he was forced to resign because progressive elements in and outside of the Church are trying to purge faithful, conservative clerics.

Still others say that the truth lies somewhere in between: that Finn may not have been aware of Ratigan's actions, but that he should have been -- that there is no excuse for a bishop to ignore even the hint of sexual abuse in the Church; and that, whether or not his critics have ulterior motives for wanting him gone, his resignation was necessary. Even Finn's defenders must agree that the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is hurting badly, and Bishop Finn's presence as leader was only prolonging the pain. He could not effectively lead the diocese, and the Vatican must make it clear that real change is afoot. 

Finn's defenders should take heart that his interim replacement is Finn's friend, and was critical of his public treatment at the time of the indictment. In a 2011 interview with the Register, Naumann pointed out how the media helped to shape the narrative about Finn's role, saying, "This crusade against Bishop Finn is, in part, ideological"; but in an interview with the Kansas City Star earlier this week, Naumann also said:

Bishop Finn has acknowledged and accepted responsibility for the mistakes that he made. The court has issued its judgment. I do not believe it serves any purpose at this point to comment further on how he was treated by the press or the court.

To the Register, Naumann acknowledged that it is critical to follow parish policy when there is a report of improper behavior by a priest, saying,

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.

At the time of the interview, it was established that Finn had not, in fact, followed diocesan policy, and had delayed reporting the pictures to the police, and then sent Ratigan back to work, whereupon Ratigan again began to have contact with children. 

Naumann was unambiguous that the Church cannot take chances when dealing with suspected sexual predators, saying:

 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.

He concluded,

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.

In the interview with the Kansas City Star earlier this week, Naumann reiterated that desire to protect children first, but also to be fair to priests who are accused of wrongdoing, saying,

I believe that the Church should hold itself to a higher standard than the general society. Our people have a right to expect their children will be safe and protected by the Church. Obviously, in the past the Church in the United States was not properly vigilant in this area. One child being harmed by a representative of the Church is one too many. When there is an allegation of misconduct by a priest or other Church representative involving a child, the Church has a responsibility first to respond quickly to protect children, but secondly to protect the reputation of a priest or other church employee until the matter can be properly investigated.

His words are a sign that the Vatican hopes to heal the diocese and to make the Church a safer place for children, without sacrificing priests who are unjustly accused of abuse. All Catholics, no matter how they interpret the week's news, should pray for Naumann and whoever succeeds him, and for the entire diocese.