Accountability and Bishop Finn

Three years after being convicted criminally for not reporting abusive conduct by a diocesan priest, the bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph resigned April 21.

Bishop Robert Finn
Bishop Robert Finn (photo: CNA)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bishop Joseph Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., resigned April 21 — one week after a meeting in Rome with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, where he tendered his resignation.

Bishop Finn’s resignation — a direct consequence of his misdemeanor conviction in 2012 for failing to report sexual misconduct by a diocesan priest — was another clear signal of the determination of Pope Francis and other Church leaders to hold bishops directly accountable for the mishandling of sexual-abuse allegations.

The April 21 daily Vatican news bulletin briefly confirmed that Pope Francis had accepted Bishop Finn’s resignation. The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph subsequently released a statement from the bishop, along with the news that Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., will serve as the apostolic administrator of the diocese until a new bishop is appointed.

“It has been an honor and joy for me to serve here among so many good people of faith,” Bishop Finn said in the statement.

“Please begin already to pray for whomever God may call to be the next bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph.”

The news capped months of speculation about the outcome of a September 2014 apostolic visitation, conducted by Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, Canada, to the diocese.

That visitation was part of the ongoing fallout from Bishop Finn’s conviction, and sentencing to two years probation, for his inaction in the notorious case of Father Shawn Ratigan. In 2010, a diocesan tech assistant found a trove of sexually oriented photos of young girls on Father Ratigan’s computer. The priest was then placed in a convent and ordered to refrain from any contact with children.

Meanwhile, Msgr. Robert Murphy, the diocese’s vicar general, contacted a law enforcement official and described the photographs, which included up-skirt images of young girls and a child with a diaper pushed aside.

But there were questions about whether the images constituted child pornography. The diocese consequently did not report the situation to local law enforcement for five months — even after Father Ratigan violated Bishop Finn’s guidelines and took part in activities where children were involved.

After diocesan officials finally notified local child-welfare officials, additional images were found, and the priest was convicted on five counts of child pornography — one count for each child involved — and given a 50-year sentence.


Push for Accountability

The apostolic visitation in Bishop Finn’s diocese highlighted the Vatican’s commitment to hold bishops accountable for failures to remove and report priests who posed a risk to minors, and it reflected ongoing concerns that Bishop Finn had lost credibility with his priests and local Catholics.

Last November, during an interview on CBS’ 60 Minutes, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who leads the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors that Pope Francis created in March 2014, said Bishop Finn’s status was “a question the Holy See needs to address urgently.”

Lay members of the commission on clergy sexual abuse also called for his removal, but sources on that commission told the Register that they had no power to address individual cases.

However, Bishop Finn’s resignation took place immediately after commission members assembled April 12 in Rome for a meeting that discussed his case in the context of a broader consideration of bishops’ accountability.

A source with knowledge of events leading up to Bishop Finn’s resignation, speaking on background, told the Register that he had been summoned to Rome for the April 14 meeting with Cardinal Ouellet and had canceled his appointments last week in order to make the trip.

Marie Collins of Ireland, a commission member who is an abuse survivor, told Crux last weekend that the commission has now submitted a proposal to the Pope about punitive measures for bishops who fail to protect minors. Commenting specifically about Bishop Finn, Collins said, “I don’t know how anybody like that could be left in charge of a diocese.”

Pope Francis has assigned the U.S. a lead role in formulating the Church’s comprehensive response to the sexual-abuse issue. Along with Cardinal O’Malley’s overall leadership, Msgr. Robert Oliver was appointed as the abuse commission’s secretary in September. And another U.S. priest, Jesuit Father Robert Geisinger, was appointed to succeed Msgr. Oliver as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s promoter of justice, who acts as the Vatican's chief prosecutor of clergy-abuse allegations.


Healing a Troubled Diocese

In an open letter to the diocese, Archbishop Naumann offered reassurance to local priests and Catholics.

“I have been part of the Kansas City community for more than 11 years, so I have an awareness of the vitality and beauty of the Catholic community in northwest Missouri,” Archbishop Naumann said.

He offered his prayers that the period following the resignation would be “a time of grace and healing for the diocese” and that the new bishop “will find a community united both in their love for Jesus and his bride — the Church.”

In fact, serious divisions have been evident within the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph from the time Bishop Finn succeeded Bishop Raymond Bolan in 2005. A member of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, which is associated with the personal prelature Opus Dei, Bishop Finn immediately took a number of measures to reorient the diocese, including the firing of senior chancery officials.

This pastoral reorientation was not well-received by some diocesan priests and lay Catholics, who believed he should maintain a course in line with his predecessor’s. And the vocal criticisms of Bishop Finn by some of his flock included actively campaigning at the Vatican for his removal following his 2012 conviction.

Yet Bishop Finn’s tenure as diocesan shepherd also included notable successes. Archbishop Naumann’s letter offered striking details about the steady stream of local vocations, noting that nine men from the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese would be ordained as priests in 2015.

Some of Bishop Finn’s defenders, including the Catholic League’s president, Bill Donohue, argue that the strong opposition to his diocesan reforms, many of which were aimed at upholding Church teachings, was primarily responsible for his resignation. “The way he has been treated is simply not fair,” Donohue told The Associated Press.

Other knowledgeable Church observers disagree forcefully. In a commentary at Catholic Culture, Phil Lawler, who has been highly critical of the bishops for their role in the sex-abuse crisis, asserted that even though Bishop Finn was “not properly informed” and received “bad advice” from subordinates, “the fact remains that when he was alerted to the fact that a troubled priest had engaged in inappropriate activities with young children, Bishop Finn did not take prompt and decisive action. He let the problem fester — as so many other bishops have let so many other problems fester — with disastrous results for everyone involved.”


Other Bishops

Now, in the wake of Bishop Finn’s resignation, those who have decried the Church’s past tolerance of bishops who failed to remove abusive priests are waiting for Pope Francis’ next move.  

The most pressing concern involves calls for the Pope to reverse his recent appointment of Chilean Bishop Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid to the Diocese of Osorno. Critics have charged that the bishop covered up sexual abuses committed by a clerical predator, Father Fernando Karadima, who mentored the bishop earlier in his clerical career.

Bishop Barros has repeatedly denied knowing about the abusive conduct of Father Karadima, and the Vatican issued a statement on March 31 noting that “the Congregation for Bishops carefully examined the prelate’s candidature and did not find objective reasons to preclude the appointment.” But several members of the Vatican abuse commission have been publicly critical of the Holy Father’s decision, and Bishop Barros’ appointment was a central focus of the April 12 meeting of abuse commission members in Rome.

And in the United States, Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis remains the target of continuing criticism over his handling of abuse cases. The allegations, which surfaced in late 2013, currently aren’t attracting the same close scrutiny from Church authorities and the media as the Chilean situation. But similarly to Bishop Finn, Archbishop Nienstedt’s position is complicated by internal divisions over his own efforts to reorient his archdiocese since succeeding Archbishop Harry Flynn in 2008.


Lessons Learned

Father Charles Rowe, the acting vicar general for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, told the Register that the lessons learned during the long ordeal were clear to all: The Church must make the safety of children and other vulnerable people its first priority.

“We have to be transparent in dealing with accusations of the abuse of minors and very forthcoming with the civil authorities and independent lay review board,” said Father Rowe in an April 21 interview.

He said that many in the local Church were relieved to end the conjecture over Bishop Finn’s future, whatever their views about his judgment and leadership.

He acknowledged that he, among others in the chancery, “loved and respected” Bishop Finn and that some had wept after they learned the Pope had accepted his resignation.

“His opponents will say this needed to happen. But we can all agree we finally have resolution,” said Father Rowe.

At present, the striking fact that vocations continue to flourish, despite the grave issues facing the diocese, will help lift the spirits of the faithful during this uncertain period.

“The fact that some priests have done very bad things, and mistakes were made,” said Father Rowe, “did not deter other young men from stepping forward to say, ‘I will serve as one of the Lord’s priests.’”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.