SNAP, Media Spotlight Role of Psychiatrist Who Evaluated Troubled KC Priest

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(Editor’s note): This is an update of a story that first appeared Dec. 1, 2011):

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Star newspaper and the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) raised questions about whether the psychiatrist who evaluated Father Shawn Ratigan, a priest charged with possession of child pornography, could be impartial in his professional assessment because of his association with a Catholic lay organization, Opus Bono Sacerdotii.

The psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, who denies the accusations, is an adjunct professor at the John Paul Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Catholic University of American in Washington, D.C. He is also the director of the Institute for Marital Healing outside Philadelphia, and consults with the Vatican and a number of U.S. dioceses.

Over a 30-year career, he has led conferences for priests and seminarians in various dioceses and religious communities. In his private practice, he has evaluated many Catholic priests,  including some accused of abusing children.

Fitzgibbons is listed as an adviser to Opus Bono Sacerdotti (“Work for the Good of the Priesthood”), an Oxford, Mich.-based lay organization that assists priests who face criminal and canonical charges and others with financial, legal or medical needs.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has protested the attacks on Opus Bono Sacerdottii and Fitzgibbons, and organized a press conference last month that challenged the accusations. In an interview, the league’s president, William Donohue, stated that the psychiatrist should be “commended, not condemned, for his association with OBS.”

The attack on Fitzgibbons is the latest phase of the high-profile Kansas City, Mo., scandal. In addition to the charges against Father Ratigan, Bishop Robert Finn has been charged with one misdemeanor count of failing to report a suspicion of abuse.  At the request of Bishop Finn, Dr. Fitzgibbons’ first meeting with Father Ratigan took place on January 2011. His completed evaluation was not published, due to patient-doctor confidentiality, but according to an independent investigation commissioned by Bishop Finn in the wake of Father Ratigan’s arrest last May, Fitzgibbons diagnosed Father Ratigan as “lonely” and “depressed,” but not a pedophile.

A Nov. 16,  Kansas City Star story on Fitzgibbons’ role stated that Bishop “Finn relied on Fitzgibbons’ opinion in his decision to send Ratigan to a Vincentian mission house in Independence, where he remained a priest and allegedly continued to take lewd photographs of children …”

In a Nov. 22 press release, SNAP reported that “Clergy sex-abuse victims have filed a formal complaint against a Philadelphia area psychologist [sic] chosen by Kansas City’s Catholic bishop to evaluate a priest accused of possessing and producing child pornography.”

“Fitzgibbons’ close affiliation with a controversial advocacy organization for child-molesting clerics makes it hard, if not impossible, for him to be objective in evaluating an accused sex-offender priest,” said Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, SNAP’s outreach director, in a press release. SNAP has also contacted the Harrisburg, Pa.-based State Board of Medicine and the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society to demand a review of Fitzgibbons’ role.

Accusations Challenged

Both Fitzgibbons and Opus Bono Sacerdotii have responded to the accusations.

Peter Ferrara, a spokesman for Opus Bono Sacerdotii, disputed suggestions in the Kansas City Star story that Opus Bono Sacerdottii is an “advocacy” group.

“The beatitudes are the best way to describe what this organization is for priests,” he said. “We help priests when they find themselves in difficulty; they could be in prison; they could be sick. We assist them with any needs they have that the Church cannot fulfill, as the Second Vatican Council asks the laity to do,” he said.

Ferrara also dismissed the idea that Fitzgibbons’ relationship with the organization might distort his professional evaluation of a priest or undercut the protection of minors.

“He’s a psychiatrist who is an adviser. And if a priest needs a psychiatrist, he might be one of a number of people or programs they could call,” said Ferrara, who observed that Fitzgibbons is also an adviser to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy and several U.S. dioceses.

In an interview with the Register, Fitzgibbons said he has evaluated many Catholic priests at the request of dioceses and other organizations and “gets a call from Opus Bono Sacerdotii once every several years.”

He dismissed the idea that his association with Opus Bono Sacerdotii might somehow sway his professional judgment. He said he had met with a many priests, some of whom were guilty of charges and others who were unfairly accused.

The focus of his evaluations, he said, is to determine whether an individual “may or may not pose a danger to themselves or to others.” During his years as a licensed psychiatrist, said Fitzgibbons, “I’ve written about unjust accusations against priests, but I’ve had no trouble telling a diocese to remove a priest if I think he’s a threat to others.” He has also defended priests who may have been treated unfairly.

Earlier this year, in the wake of the explosive grand jury report in Philadelphia that led to multiple indictments and the removal of 26 priests from ministry, Fitzgibbons publicly challenged the decision by the Philadelphia Archdiocese to pull priests who had already been cleared of abuse allegations. In a published interview with the Register last April, Fitzgibbons noted that perceived “boundary violations” had wrongly prompted the removal of some priests.

Fitzgibbons stresses that during an individual evaluation he focuses on objective criteria. 

When asked to evaluate a troubled priest or someone already accused of “allegedly inappropriate sexual behavior, you … look at their background and the psychological conflicts that could predispose them to making mistakes,” he said. 

In such cases, he employs a number of tests, including the Clarke Sex History Questionnaire: “a standardized computer-scored questionnaire to determine if the subject has sexual conflicts,” which can result in criminal behavior. But he acknowledged that no evaluation is fool-proof; patients can lie or otherwise misrepresent their true psychological state.

“The testing we use and the history obtained provide an objective evaluation within a ‘reasonable degree of medical certainty,’” said Fitzgibbons, who stood by his belief that acute loneliness and narcissism, reinforced by a history of sexual conflict, pulled many priests into opportunistic criminal behavior.

At the time of Fitzgibbons’ evaluation of Father Ratigan, which began with their initial meeting on Jan. 9, 2011, a key issue was the discovery of troubling photographs of young girls found by a parish computer contractor on the priest’s laptop on Dec. 16, 2010.

When the technician alerted the parish staff about the photographs, which included a young girl whose diaper had been removed, the vicar general Msgr. Robert Murphy ordered Father Ratigan to report to the chancery the following day. Instead, the priest attempted suicide. No accusations or criminal charges had been filed at that point.

After his evaluation, Father Ratigan was not returned to his parish, and was sent to a retreat home with instructions to stay off the computer and avoid contact with minors. Reportedly, he did not follow those guidelines. Diocesan authorities ultimately called in the police, who allegedly discovered pornographic images of children on his computer, prompting formal criminal charges.

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


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