Bishop Finn Struggles to Regain Credibility

Kansas City leader releases report criticizing his handling of abuse investigation.

KANAS CITY, Mo. — Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph released a report that criticized his supervision of a troubled priest, and recommended changes in his policies for addressing sexual misconduct.

Released Sept. 1, the report was commissioned by Bishop Finn, following the arrest of Father Shawn Ratigan, a diocesan priest, for possession of child pornography. The report summarized the findings of an independent investigation directed by former United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri Todd Graves, who oversaw a team of attorneys, former prosecutors and Federal Bureau of Investigation officials.

The investigators concluded that the diocese’s response was flawed, in part because those seeking to report suspected sexual misconduct were directed to a single administrative office. Further, the report noted that Church officials failed to adhere to diocesan policy for both responding to allegations in a “timely manner” and consulting with the Independent Review Board. The report singled out Bishop Finn for his “[m]isplaced trust in Ratigan’s agreement to comply with restrictions,” once he was placed on administrative leave and ordered to stay away from children.

The report offered a number of recommendations, including the appointment of an ombudsman, who would be “notified of reports of current or past sexual abuse of minors, and should also receive reports of two new categories of conduct: sexual misconduct with minors and boundary violations, ... [and] immediately address all allegations of clergy sexual misconduct.”

However, Graves, who directed the investigation into the diocese’s actions, appeared to signal that he was satisfied with both the bishop’s commitment to open disclosure with the investigators and the diocese’s plans for incorporating the necessary policy and staffing changes.

“Our 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,” stated Graves, in prepared remarks.

In the months since Father Ratigan’s arrest on May 18, 2011, Bishop Finn has repeatedly apologized for the diocese’s response to concerns raised about the priest’s behavior. Further, he has already hired an ombudsman to handle future allegations.

“On June 30, the diocese appointed an ombudsman to receive and investigate all reports of inappropriate behavior or sexual misconduct by clergy, employees or volunteers in the diocese,” said Rebecca Summers, a spokeswoman for the diocese. “Once investigated, the ombudsman presents the information to an Independent Review Board, an independent, confidential and consultative body. The primary focus of this body is to make recommendations to the bishop regarding the fitness for ministry or continued employment of the accused.”

Principal’s Letter

The series of missteps that ended with Father Ratigan’s arrest began with a 2010 letter from Julie Hess, the principal of St. Patrick’s School, who expressed concern about the priest’s “perceived inappropriate behavior with children,” and reported that some in the parish feared he might be a “child molester.”

The principal noted in her letter that the school community’s response to the priest’s behavior reflected the extensive training that teachers, parents, volunteers and students had received in the wake of the 2002 clergy abuse crisis.

Her letter included no specific allegation of sexual abuse. Rather, as she noted, the community’s concerns were prompted by the priest’s nonsexual boundary violations in his interactions with children. Safe environment training typically includes education about sexual predators engaging in the so-called “grooming” of their targets through affectionate physical contact.

Msgr. Robert Murphy, the vicar general of the diocese, did not show Hess’s letter to Bishop Finn, but summarized its contents. In December 2010, a computer technician found disturbing photographs of young girls on the priest’s computer; the images were described, but not shown, to a policeman, and to the diocesan legal counsel. Ultimately, the diocese did not alert local law enforcement.

In a article in the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Key, editor Jack Smith offered an explanation for Bishop Finn’s decision not to contact law enforcement after the images were found on the priest’s computer. “Both the police officer and legal counsel opined that the photos did not constitute child pornography as they did not contain sexual conduct or contact as defined by Missouri law,” stated Smith.

That said, Father Ratigan was ordered to meet with diocesan officials the following day. “Father Ratigan did not arrive at the chancery. Instead, the next morning he was found unconscious in his garage with his motorcycle running,” Smith explained in his narrative in The Catholic Key.

The priest was placed on administrative leave and underwent psychiatric evaluation. Afterwards, he was not permitted to return to his parish, have any contact with children, or use a camera and a computer.

“On May 12, after repeated reports that Father Ratigan had violated these restrictions, Msgr. Murphy again contacted the police officer he had originally contacted in December. When Msgr. Murphy relayed ongoing concerns about Father Ratigan’s violation of the restrictions placed upon him, the officer facilitated a report to the Cyber Crimes Against Children Unit,” stated Smith.

The priest was taken into custody on May 18. When detectives searched the priest’s possessions left at his family home, they found “an optical disk with 14 different images of child pornography and a Rocketfish hard drive with four images of child pornography. That same day, Father Ratigan was charged with three counts of possession of child pornography in Clay County,” Smith confirmed.

In Finn’s Defense

Bishop Finn has been strongly criticized by many local Catholics, particularly members of the St. Patrick’s parish community. Parents are angry that Father Ratigan continued to have contact with school children after the diocese received the letter from Hess, the school principal, and they fear parish children could have been harmed by him.

In the wake of Father Ratigan’s arrest, Bishop Finn removed Msgr. Murphy from his position as vicar general. Some local Catholics also have called for Bishop Finn’s resignation.

That judgment is shared by some Catholic commentators who have expressed frustration with the ongoing stumbles of U.S. bishops who have been under media scrutiny for almost a decade after the 2002 abuse crisis.

In the wake of Father Ratigan’s arrest, Elizabeth Scalia, who writes The Anchoress blog, posted a hard hitting critique of Bishop Finn’s actions that reflected the anger of many Catholics who want Church leaders to put the clergy abuse crisis behind them, once and for all.

Scalia acknowledged that initially, at least, the parish school and the diocesan officials were grappling with an ambiguous allegation: “The question remained: was [Father Shawn] Ratigan’s behavior criminal? Based on the evidence available at the time, nobody could have said in good conscience that it was.” Hess’s letter, suggested Scalia “was able to fuse a mosaic of apparent non-events into a coherent picture of pathology,” wrote Scalia.

“Bishop Finn certainly has his defenders; he may indeed be a very good man, but any bishop who is not exquisitely sensitive to this issue, at this point, is betraying an astounding lack of understanding. If he doesn’t get it by now, when will he?” Scalia asked.

But Russell Shaw, once a longtime spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, suggested that demands for Bishop Finn’s removal were “premature.”

“The bishop has admitted that he made a mistake and has expressed regret. Demanding his resignation is clearly premature — especially in a Church that preaches forgiveness,” said Shaw, the author of Nothing to Hide Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church.

“It’s necessary to bear in mind that Bishop Finn has been under fire for some time from people who don’t care for his efforts to foster orthodox Catholicism in the diocese,” Shaw said. “All things considered, then, it would be fair and reasonable to give him another chance.”

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.