Can Bishop Robert Finn Get a Fair Hearing?
The forces the Kansas City bishop faces are seemingly arrayed against him — and the Church.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — To understand Bishop Robert Finn’s indictment for failure to report suspected child abuse it is helpful to know a little about the world he walked into when he was appointed to lead the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in 2004. From the beginning, this “theological conservative” was not particularly welcome.
In May 2006, the National Catholic Reporter tallied up the numerous changes Bishop Finn had implemented in the diocese as though they were counts in an indictment. The Talk to Action blog, meanwhile, described the bishop’s establishment of a Respect Life Office as a giant step in his “march backwards” and a clear sign that “biological issues now take precedence over long-standing concerns such as distributive justice.”
In a diocese like Kansas City-St. Joseph, where some public officials and Church leaders have long enjoyed an easy rapport, the new emphasis on “life issues” prompted some Catholics to rethink their political allegiances. This realignment, actual or feared, has agitated any number of forces, the media most notably.
Leading the media charge has been the Kansas City Star which assigned its ace project reporter, Judy Thomas, to the Father Ratigan story. Locally, Thomas has a reputation for probing pro-life institutions, Catholic and evangelical. Her groundbreaking 2000 series on AIDS in the priesthood, she states on her HSJ.org profile page, “was picked up in virtually every major market in the United States and in various outlets around the world.”
At the first whiff of the Father Ratigan scandal, the Star started to run above-the-fold headlines and soon called for the bishop’s resignation. “It’s painful to believe the most vulnerable in his flock weren’t protected,” criticized a Star editorialist. But when former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline read this editorial, he was appalled. As AG, Kline had worked to expose abortion facilities that failed to report cases of child rape as required by Kansas law. In 2003 and 2004 alone, the state’s largest family-planning businesses had reported only two of 166 cases in which abortions were performed on girls 14 and under.
When Kline moved to acquire the necessary records, the two relevant state agencies
fought every request and forced Kline to seek subpoenas, dramatically slowing down his investigation. Kline is convinced that then-governor and now Obama Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was directing this resistance.
So relentless was the Star’s attack on Kline during his 2006 re-election bid that national Planned Parenthood awarded the paper its top editorial honor, the “Maggie,” named after its eugenicist founder, Margaret Sanger. Kline lost, and other cases of suspected child rape have not received the same public scrutiny.
The Star’s campaign against Kline continues to this day. An Oct. 16 editorial addressing disciplinary action against the former DA stated: “Kline’s harassment of women seeking legal abortions in Kansas — and medical personnel who provided those abortions — was completely out of bounds. It was an alarming display of zealotry, something he should have been ashamed of as the chief law enforcement officer for the state and, later, Johnson County.”
Indeed, though Kline initiated his prosecution of the Planned Parenthood clinic in 2007, the case has yet to be resolved. An Oct. 21 story in the Kansas City Star reported on a new and frustrating development for the prosecutor now handling the case.
“The country’s first criminal prosecution of Planned Parenthood was left teetering Friday when it was revealed the state of Kansas destroyed abortion records that prosecutors planned to use as evidence,” reported an Oct. 27 story in the Star.
The prosecutor insists that the relevant documents should have been retained by the government for five years, but were shredded before that deadline: “The shredding occurred when KDHE was under former Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, an abortion rights supporter,” confirmed the Star.
In contrast to the administration of Gov. Sebelius, the diocese made an open and honest effort to get at the truth once Bishop Finn finally recognized the depth of the Father Ratigan problem. As the well-received independent Graves Report notes, “Bishop Finn directed that the diocese and all parishes cooperate fully with the investigation.” As the report also notes, however, “the diocese’s handling of reports regarding Father Ratigan was flawed from the outset.”
This contention no one challenges, least of all Bishop Finn himself. But his supporters have raised questions about whether the local Catholic leader and the diocese have been unjustly held to a higher standard. Take, for instance, Missouri’s questionable approach to addressing allegations of child sexual abuse in public schools.
Woody Cozad, a prominent local attorney and lobbyist, has scrutinized the state’s response to allegations of child sexual abuse against public school teachers. Ultimately, he worked with state legislators in Jefferson City, Mo., to change a law that, says Cozad, “encouraged school administrators not to report sexual abuse.”
As Cozad explains it, public schools had been uniquely allowed to handle their own cases internally. After an accusation was investigated, an attorney representing the school district would typically meet with the attorney for the accused — often paid for by the teachers union, and the two lawyers would work out an agreement.
In many cases, the agreement would allow the accused to resign with some severance pay and a letter that did not specify the reason for the departure. So common have these deals been nationwide that the participants have earned the nickname “mobile molesters.”
Cozad asserts: “There is way more abuse in public schools than Catholic ones.”
But when state Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, sought to reform public schools’ policy for dealing with sexual predators, she faced a wall of indifference. Finally, she succeeded the same month the Father Ratigan scandal broke.
“After five years of fighting,” said Cunningham, “I’m proud to see this legislation finally sent to the governor’s desk — children in our state are now one big step closer to having solid protection from sexual predators in their schools.”
While many public-school districts have been insulated from any efforts to reform union practices, Catholic dioceses have dramatically altered their policies for identifying, reporting and removing alleged clerical predators. But Catholic leaders and institutions remain vulnerable to politicized campaigns to discredit them and reap huge financial settlements. At least some of those who have read criminal intent into the bishop’s actions often have something to gain by doing so.
Chief among the opportunists is SNAP — the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. SNAP’s leader, David Clohessy, doesn’t mince words. On Oct. 20, he posted an open letter on his website. “Jailing Finn, once his guilt has been determined or admitted,” wrote Clohessy, “would be an unprecedented and effective step towards preventing future clergy sex crimes and cover-ups, in Kansas City or elsewhere.”
Perhaps the most overlooked or ignored fact is that SNAP often collaborates with the trial attorneys who benefit from the suffering of abuse victims, real and imagined. SNAP’s involvement in a Kansas City suit dating back a generation rubbed at least some of the participants wrong.
“SNAP wants everyone to donate money. They got $40,000 out of that settlement,” says Craig Wilkerson, one of the more severely abused victims. “I’ve been telling the Star to investigate SNAP ever since.”
In the months since the diocese reported Father Ratigan to law enforcement, attorney Rebecca Randles, who drove the diocese’s 2008 $10-million settlement with 47 presumed victims, has entered pleadings for more than 20 new victims (John Doe D.M. v. Fr. Stephen J. Wise). The case was filed Oct. 4 in the Circuit Court of Jackson County in Independence.
Lawyer Cozad believes the steady drip-drip of these articles has poisoned the local jury pool.
“The anti-Catholic propaganda is tremendous out there,” says Cozad, who believes that only the Star’s dwindling readership will allow for the jury to be pulled locally.
When the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights attempted to counter the allegations against Bishop Finn with a full-page ad in the Kansas City Star, its publisher rejected the ad and the $25,000 fee without saying why.
“Never have I been turned down,” said Catholic League director Bill Donohue, who routinely places ads in The New York Times and elsewhere, “much less without explanation.”
This environment should prove advantageous for the new Jackson County prosecutor, Jean Peters-Baker, who was appointed to her predecessor’s unfinished term a week before the scandal broke. Soon after her appointment as prosecutor, Peters-Baker launched her 2012 election campaign.
She will likely face a tough Democratic primary challenge next August. Peters-Baker’s campaign theme: “This is about protecting children.”
As one savvy Democratic activist said about Peters, “She won one election as a state rep (with NARAL backing). She has no name ID. Running countywide is a big damn difference.”
Peters-Baker went a long way towards acquiring name ID on October 14 when she indicted Bishop Finn. “This is about protecting children,” Peters-Baker told The New York Times, which has given Bishop Finn’s indictment prominent coverage.
Still, Cozad sees only a Pyrrhic victory here for the anti-Finn forces. “If Jean Peters-Baker successfully stretches the noose for mandatory responders to accommodate the Diocese and Bishop Finn,” said Cozad during his appearance October 27 on the local PBS show Ruckus, “she will have made a necktie plenty big enough for Planned Parenthood.”
Jack Cashill is a Kansas City-based writer and producer. To learn more, see jackcashill.com.