Bishop Robert Finn was indicted this week for failure to report a pedophile priest.
Bishop Robert Finn on Friday became the highest-ranking Catholic official in the nation to face criminal prosecution in the decades-old child sexual abuse scandal — an action that stunned many inside and outside the church.
A Jackson County grand jury on Oct. 6 secretly indicted both Finn and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph on misdemeanor charges of failure to report child abuse in a case involving a priest facing child pornography charges.
As Finn and the diocese denied wrongdoing Friday after appearing in court, news of the charges roiled the nation and the Catholic world.
I have been reading about this case as its developed for months but everything I've read has left me a little ambivalent. There's a problem with this story and it's been covered unevenly from the outset. On the surface it comports well with a familiar narrative about Catholic bishops protecting the Church's reputation and abusive priests at the expense of children. But it's not that straightforward.
I'm not saying that Bishop Finn handled this situation well or that he was anywhere near as proactive as he needed to be. But at the end of the day, I have to say the same about the police and that element has been ignored in most of the reporting.
I first became aware of the problems in the Kansas City Diocese in May of this year when the story of of priest in possession of child pornography broke wide. Early reports claimed that the diocese had sat on the evidence for months and failed to act on concerns about Father Shawn Ratigan. After reading more in depth stories, I learned that this was not quite accurate. Bishop Finn, who quickly donned a hair shirt and prostrated himself before God and the media, actually did have someone from the diocese talk to police early on. Could he have been more proactive? Definitely. But that doesn't excuse the lazy reporting that has blatantly misstated the facts.
The current media narrative says that the Bishop knew of troubling images on Father Ratigan's computer for months before reporting them to police. But some of the more thorough reporting from this past May says the opposite. A nude image that particularly concerned them was described to police immediately and shown to church counsel. Both said that the image did not constitute child pornography
This story in the paper of record is a case on point:
Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has acknowledged that he knew of the existence of photographs last December but did not turn them over to the police until May.
. . .
Stoking much of the anger is the fact that only three years ago, Bishop Finn settled lawsuits with 47 plaintiffs in sexual abuse cases for $10 million and agreed to a long list of preventive measures, among them to immediately report anyone suspected of being a pedophile to law enforcement authorities.
Michael Hunter, an abuse victim who was part of that settlement and is now the president of the Kansas City chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said: “There were 19 nonmonetary agreements that the diocese signed on to, and they were things like reporting immediately to the police. And they didn’t do it. That’s really what sickens us as much as the abuse.”
Their reporting is incomplete but it does provide a link to a pdf Bishop Finn's May statement:
When the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph reported its concerns about Father Shawn Ratigan to the Kansas City Police Department on May 12, we set into motion a series of events that have provoked feelings of concern, anger and shame.
During the last two weeks, I have learned facts that I had not previously known. As Bishop, I owe it to people to say, “Things must change.”
I must also acknowledge my own failings.
Yesterday evening, I read, for the first time, the memorandum prepared in May 2010 by our principal at St. Patrick School. There, she reported her concerns about Shawn Ratigan’s inappropriate behavior with children at her school.
In the following days, Diocesan Vicar General Msgr. Murphy gave me a brief verbal summary of the report and his meeting with Shawn Ratigan, which had occurred immediately after the report was received. Msgr. Murphy told me that he had thoroughly discussed these concerns with Shawn Ratigan, and how he was to change his behaviors.
Shawn Ratigan expressed both the willingness and the desire to make these changes.
To the best of my knowledge, no one on my staff, other than Msgr. Murphy, read the report. Hindsight makes it clear that I should have requested from Msgr. Murphy an actual copy of the report. And, so, I also have to change. Please understand that at the time of the May 2010 report, we had no knowledge of any inappropriate photographs or images in Shawn Ratigan’s possession. Those were not discovered until December 2010.
How will we change?
I already have met with the people of the St. Patrick Parish community, priests of the diocese, diocesan staff, and the chair of the Independent Review Board. As a result of these meetings, I have asked the Independent Review Board to expand its role in receiving and evaluating reports of misconduct with children. I will be meeting with others, to determine how best to change our internal structure, reporting and procedures. The changes could be unsettling but, more than ever, I realize that they are necessary.
Please pray for me in these resolutions. And, let us pray for each other in these difficult days.
Where the New York Times fails is in leaving out the very important point that the diocese did contact the police immediately after learning of questionable images from a computer technician.
More accurate accounting of the sequence of events can be found in reporting from the time. In point of fact, the diocese contacted the police the day after they learned from a computer tech that there were troubling images on Father Ratigan's computer. Neither the police nor church counsel thought the images were actionable.
Captain Steve Young explained, “A member of the Diocese contacted a member of this department and told that member of the department that they'd found a computer and on that computer was a single image of a naked young girl."
The Diocese asked if the photos were pornographic.
He continued, “The answer to that is no, it is not child porn. It is not a prosecutable offense."
Bishop Robert Finn said in a statement Friday, the Diocese did seek advice from its legal council. Finn said, “The photographs did not constitute pornography as they did not depict sexual conduct or contact."
Now, Finn regrets not pushing for a full investigation.
A number of the articles that I'd saved on this case were lost when my link service went tats up without warning, but this story from the National Catholic Register provides a chronology that pretty well comports with my recollection.
In December 2010, a computer technician working on Father Ratigan’s laptop found what he described as “disturbing images” of children, including pictures focusing on the children’s crotch areas, and a young girl with her genitals exposed.
According to a diocese-commissioned investigation, led by former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves, Msgr. Murphy described one image — but did not produce it — to a police captain who is a member of the diocese’s independent review board. Msgr. Murphy described a single photo of a nude child that was not sexual in nature.
According to Graves’ report, issued Sept. 1, Police Capt. Rick Smith said Msgr. Murphy informed him that Father Ratigan’s computer contained a single picture of a nude girl; that it was a family member or a niece; and that it was not a sexual pose.
However, Msgr. Murphy said he did not remember telling the police captain that the picture depicted a young relative or that it was not a sexual pose.
Either way, the report says Capt. Smith, after seeking advice from a police colleague, told Msgr. Murphy that a single photo in a non‐sexual pose might meet the definition of child pornography, but it would not likely be investigated or prosecuted.
The day after the images were found, Father Ratigan was ordered to meet with diocesan officials, but the next morning, he was found unconscious in his garage, with his motorcycle running, according to The Catholic Key, the diocesan newspaper.
Father Ratigan was placed on administrative leave and underwent a psychiatric evaluation. He was not permitted to return to this parish and prohibited from having any contact with children or using a camera and computer.
On May 12, after Father Ratigan allegedly violated those restrictions, Msgr. Murphy again contacted the police officer, who in turn submitted a report to the Cyber Crimes Against Children Unit. Six days later, police arrested the priest after finding a flash drive with several pictures of child pornography.
What I find interesting in that article is that it describes a differing recollection between police and the monsignor who conferred with them, so it's a case of he said, he said. I also find it interesting that in the direct statement from Captain Young quoted above, he doesn't acknowledge that the image could have been pornographic. The Graves Commission report shows Captain Smith saying that it could have been pornography but would not likely have been investigated or prosecuted. That's a pretty big difference.
None of this is to excuse Bishop Finn's ostrich behavior on this case and their definitely was some. But my sense is that the police also dropped the ball. Why they didn't push for an investigation if there was any chance that the image described could have been pornographic is beyond me.
I find this particularly troubling in the wake of so much effort to get the Catholic Church on board with reporting requirements. Those efforts assume that the police are the people to turn to.
Comments on this entry are closed, on this blog. If you wish to comment, please find this and all newer blog entries crossposted on Celestial Reflections.