.- Bishop Robert W. Finn and the Diocese of Kansas City–St. Joseph have entered a plea of not guilty to misdemeanor charges of failure to report a priest’s suspected child abuse. The bishop asked for prayers and pointed to new reforms intended to ensure transparency.
Bishop Finn said he and his diocese will meet the announced indictments with “a steady resolve and a vigorous defense.”
“With deep faith, we will weather this storm and never cease to fulfill our mission, even in moments of adversity,” he added.
Missouri law requires members of the clergy such as Bishop Finn and the operators of schools such as the diocese to report reasonable suspicions of child abuse. The charge against the bishop carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The diocese faces a fine of up to $5,000.
The case follows the May 19 arrest of former St. Patrick’s Church pastor Fr. Shawn Ratigan on child pornography charges. A technician found numerous suspicious images of children, mostly prepubescent girls, on the priest’s laptop. He informed a deacon who reported the find to diocesan officials on December 16, 2010.
However, diocesan officials did not contact law enforcement until May 11, 2011.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced the charges on Friday.
“This is a significant charge,” Baker said, according to the Kansas City Star. “To my knowledge, a charge like this has not been leveled before.”
She said she had done her best to ensure a fair process.
“This has nothing — nothing — to do with the Catholic faith. This is about the facts of the case, nothing more. This is about protecting children,” Baker said.
Fr. Ratigan attempted suicide on Dec. 17, after diocesan officials informed him that they had discovered some of the images. Doctors initially did not expect him to live or to recover full mental capacity. When he recovered, he was placed in psychiatric care. He was removed from ministry and placed under restrictions.
After the priest’s arrest, Bishop Finn apologized for failing to ask police to conduct a full investigation sooner. He launched an independent investigation of the events and of diocesan procedures under the leadership of Todd Graves, a former co-chair of the U.S. Department of Justice Child Exploitation Working Group.
The Graves Commission’s Aug. 31 report found that there was a failure to follow diocesan policy in a timely manner and diocesan officials relied on limited professional judgments rather than the diocese’s independent review board. They also found that Bishop Finn misplaced trust in the priest to comply with his restrictions.
Msgr. Robert Murphy, the diocese’s vicar general, in December conducted what the report called “a limited and improperly conceived investigation” into whether a single image of a girl’s genitals constituted child pornography.
Without seeing the image, the vicar general solicited an opinion from a review board member. He also shared the images with the diocese’s legal counsel and received an opinion that “a single disturbing image” did not constitute child pornography.
Instead of referring the matter to the review board for a more thorough investigation, Msgr. Murphy initially allowed these answers to satisfy the diocese’s duty for diligent inquiry. The monsignor himself contacted police in May.
Bishop Finn later said he never viewed the photos, but they had been described to him, the report states.
On Oct. 14 the bishop said he had pledged the “complete cooperation of the diocese and accountability to law enforcement” after Fr. Ratigan’s arrest.
“We have carried this out faithfully. Diocesan staff and I have given hours of testimony before grand juries, delivered documents, and answered questions fully,” Bishop Finn said.
Evidence against Fr. Ratigan includes other materials not involved in the diocese’s investigation. Police have confiscated a desktop computer, camera equipment, and a compact disc and flash drive containing pornographic images, KMBC reports.
The priest had previously fallen under suspicion.
In May 2010, St. Patrick School principal Julie Hess presented Msgr. Murphy with a letter detailing parent’s concerns about the priest’s “perceived inappropriate behavior with children” and about some of the priest’s actions which they believed fit the profile of a child predator.
The grand jury indictment cites Bishop Finn’s and the diocese’s previous knowledge of concerns about Fr. Ratigan, the discovery of hundreds of photographs of children on the priest’s laptop, and the priest’s violations of his restrictions.
They “knowingly failed to immediately report such suspected abuse” to the Missouri Children’s Division, the indictment charges.
Gerald Handley, the bishop’s lawyer, said that his client “denies any criminal wrongdoing and has cooperated at all stages with law enforcement, the grand jury, the prosecutor’s office, and the Graves Commission. We will continue our efforts to resolve this matter.”
The case also has bearing on the diocese’s 2008 $10 million settlement with 47 plaintiffs in sex abuse cases. The settlement included an agreement that the diocese would report any suspected abuse to law enforcement agencies.
Bishop Finn asked during Sunday Mass on Oct. 16 for prayers and unity from Catholics, priests, parishes and Catholic institutions. He also pledged an “ever stronger determination” to “form, teach and protect children.”
Bishop Finn and the diocese will have their next court appearance on Dec. 15.