Amid abuse controversy, KC diocese appoints new vicar for clergy

Two weeks after announcing a series of reviews and changes to his diocese's abuse procedures, Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop Robert W. Finn appointed Father Joseph Powers as his new Vicar for Clergy on June 22.

“With Father Powers assuming the duties of Vicar for Clergy, we strengthen our administrative oversight of the diocese and draw upon Father Powers’ pastoral experience in urban, rural and suburban parishes throughout the diocese,” Bishop Finn said in a statement announcing the appointment.

Fr. Powers, pastor of the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph, will be the new liaison between diocesan priests and the bishop, in charge of coordinating priests' assignments and ensuring their pastoral effectiveness. He will also be responsible for handling any allegations of misconduct against local clergy, and will serve as a member of the review board advising the bishop on the status and future of accused priests.

The new vicar for clergy is taking over these responsibilities from Monsignor Robert Murphy, who will continue to serve as vicar general of the diocese. In his June 22 statement, Bishop Finn explained that Msgr. Murphy “will continue to have responsibility for general diocesan administration, directly supervising Chancery employees and serving on a number of diocesan boards and committees.”

Msgr. Murphy has come in for criticism, along with Bishop Finn, for their handling of suspicions about Father Shawn Ratigan, a priest arrested in May 2011 on child pornography charges.

The vicar general went to the police with his own suspicions about Fr. Ratigan in December 2010, five months before the priest was arrested. After Fr. Ratigan's arrest, however, it emerged that the vicar general had received a letter in May 2010 voicing concerns about the priest's behavior with children.

According to Bishop Finn, Msgr. Murphy spoke with Fr. Ratigan at that time and obtained the priest's promise to change his behavior. Bishop Finn did not read the original letter, relying instead on his vicar general's brief verbal summary of its contents and the ensuing conversation with Fr. Ratigan.

Bishop Finn has said he regrets not reading the letter himself. The bishop has also acknowledged that he should have begun a full investigation of Fr. Ratigan after suspicious photographs were found on his computer last December. Instead, Bishop Finn removed Fr. Ratigan from ministry and placed him under a series of restrictions that he failed to obey prior to his arrest.

On June 9, Bishop Finn announced several steps to improve his diocese's response to cases of suspected abuse.

The plan involves the appointment of Todd Graves, a former co-chair of the U.S. Department of Justice Child Exploitation Working Group, to conduct an independent investigation of recent events and diocesan procedures. Bishop Finn said the review would “help us to determine the effectiveness of diocesan policies and procedures in a very troubling situation.”

The diocese will also undergo an independent review of its current code of ethics and sexual misconduct policy, while reviewing its staff’s familiarity with those policies.

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