Earth to the Catholic Church: if you won’t go after your priests, the law will go after you.
That’s the lesson that Bishop Robert W. Finn learned recently. The leader of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph was convicted in court for not telling police that one of his priests, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, had taken hundreds of lewd images of the genitalia of little girls – some as young as 2 years of age.
Ratigan, age 46, has pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges. If convicted, he could face a minimum 15 years in prison.
Finn’s historic conviction is the first time that a Catholic bishop in the United States had been held accountable in criminal court in the nearly three decades since the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals first came to light. He is believed to be one of only two bishops in the world convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse. The other case happened in France.
The decades-long child sex abuse scandal has led to the dismissal and criminal investigation of hundreds of priests, even as their superiors have been spared, as pointed out in a recent New York Times editorial — despite “years of deliberate scheming to buy off victims and rotate rogue priests to new parishes.”
Although most references, by the way, refer to the “three decades” of this child sexual abuse scandal, make no mistake: this is not a modern phenomenon. Three decades ago, the media started publicizing the depths of depravity going on behind closed doors. It is simply unrealistic to somehow believe that Catholic priests (and football coaches, and Scout leaders) who prey on the innocent with impunity have not been doing so for centuries.
Finn’s guilty verdict addresses the bishop’s failure to report suspected abuse during the five-month time period leading up to Ratigan’s arrest in May 2011. The priest had privately admitted to Finn his addiction to taking nude photos of little girls, but criminal authorities were not alerted for five months, until the diocese’s vicar general grew nervous and finally sent word to local prosecutors.
Parents in at least one of his diocese schools had become alarmed about specific events: Ratigan had put a girl on his lap on a bus trip, attempted to “friend” an eighth grader on Facebook, and had an “inappropriate” relationship with a fifth-grade girl. On a children’s group excursion to Ratigan’s house, parents spotted a pair of girls’ panties in a planter in his yard. And that was before the hundreds of naked children’s photos that he’d taken were discovered on his computer.
After Ratigan’s arrest, it was revealed that diocesan officials had been warned more than a year earlier about his disturbing interactions with children – but took no action. The court heard that during these five months after his inappropriate behaviour was first reported – and despite Bishop Finn’s directive banning him from being around children – Ratigan was a participant at children’s birthday parties, spent weekends at the homes of parish families, hosted the annual Easter Egg hunt, and then presided, with the bishop’s permission, at a 7-year old girl’s First Communion. Bishop Finn came under extreme criticism for failing to respond to warnings, and irate Catholics set up a Facebook page called “Bishop Finn Must Go”, demanding his resignation.
In an astonishingly insensitive lack of public relations awareness, and despite his court conviction, the bishop announced he would not leave his job.
In a statement reported in the Washington Post, a diocese spokesman said:
“The Bishop looks forward to continuing to perform his duties, including carrying out the important obligations placed on him by the Court.”
Other theologians are not so sure. Rev. Thomas Reese, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center, told the Post:
“For the good of the diocese and the church, I think he should apologize and resign. Then a new bishop can begin the healing process. The judge found him guilty. There is no way he can lead the diocese after that.”
Pope Benedict XVI is the only person with the authority to force a bishop from office, and the Vatican has so far kept silent about any plans to kick Finn out of the Bishop’s palace.
But within the past year, the Pope has removed a bishop suspected of financial improprieties, and he has removed another bishop who suggested that the church should debate the issue of allowing women and married priests. And as one reader astutely commented in response to the Post story:
“You can bet a carload of what Cardinal Dolan calls ‘fat, balding, Irish bishops’ that if Finn had ordained a woman, said mass as part of a civil wedding for a same-sex couple, or said in a sermon that celibacy would be optional, the Vatican would have had him out of his diocese before you could say ‘Roma locuta est’.”
From my perspective as a veteran of three decades in the wonderful world of public relations, I can understand why the Pope has both hands covering his ears while loudly humming the La-La-La-I-Can’t-Hear-You song. Imagine the avalanche of pink slips if the Pope actually decided to man up and decree that all senior church officials will actually be held accountable for covering up and protecting their known predator priests.
Finn’s conviction isn’t actually the Bishop’s first kick at the can when it comes to the child sex abuse scandal in Kansas City.
Last November, Finn avoided trial on similar charges in another county in the diocese by agreeing to give prosecutors oversight of the diocese’s sex abuse reporting procedures in that county.
And in 2008, the diocese settled a lawsuit for $10 million that involved 47 plaintiffs and 12 accused priests. Finn agreed at that time to a long list of preventive measures, among them to immediately report anyone suspected of child sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities.
Since Ratigan’s arrest, about two dozen additional lawsuits have been filed against several of Finn’s priests. Many of those suits also name Finn and the diocese as defendants.
“He had hired a high-priced defense team to make his case. The diocese revealed this week that Finn’s legal bills have cost the diocese and its insurers nearly $1.4 million over the past year, and that parishes will have to kick in more money to cover the outlays.”
In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, on the very same June day that, in an eerie coincidence, Penn State’s serial child molester Jerry Sandusky was convicted of sexual abuse, another landmark child sex abuse case against the Catholic church was decided.
A jury in Philadelphia found Monsignor William Lynn guilty of endangering the welfare of a child, making him the first senior U.S. Roman Catholic Church official to ever be convicted for covering up child sex abuse.
Perhaps the convictions of Lynn and Finn will encourage a wave of identical charges against all other church officials – up to and including Pope Benedict himself – who have actively participated in the massive cover-up of their sexual predators over the past three decades. My guess: don’t hold your breath.
Instead, a frightening example of what’s been called the ‘patriarchal apartheid’ of the Catholic church is the recent excommunication of a nun working as a nurse at a Catholic hospital in Arizona last year because she approved an emergency abortion last year to save the life of a critically ill patient.
Ironically, although it has taken years, sometimes decades, to bring any sex-abusing predator priests to justice, Sister Margaret McBride was excommunicated by the Catholic church in a matter of mere months.
One also wonders how many of those known predator priests (or the Monsignors or Bishops who successfully protected them) have been excommunicated like the disobedient Sister Margaret was? My guess: approximately zero.
But Sister Margaret may not be alone.
Last year, the Vatican launched an “apostolic visitation” or investigation of every one of America’s 60,000 religious sisters, accused with having what Vatican spokesman Cardinal Franc Rodé calls “a feminist spirit” and “a secular mentality”.
This is an era when the church’s male leadership can be blamed for the worst examples of incompetence throughout the modern history of professional public relations practice, yet even the modest roles accorded to female clerics have somehow come under attack from the old men wearing funny hats.
And as far as the child sex abuse scandal goes, Bishop Daniel Conlon (chairman of the American bishops’ committee for child protection) summed up the damage to the church’s reputation because of its longstanding protection of known predators:
“Despite considerable progress with reforms, our credibility on the subject of child abuse is shredded.”
Q: Should senior Catholic church officials convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse be allowed to keep their jobs?
- My farewell letter to the Pope
- The Vatican’s abuse response: “a PR failure, carnage, nightmare and train wreck”
- Why the Pope needs media training
- The endangered species called Catholic nuns
- Lessons from Toyota from the Pope
- Penn State’s PR train wreck