Bishop Finn agreement seems to indicate prosecution's weak case

Bishop Robert W Finn CNA US Catholic News 11 16 11 Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph

A county prosecutor’s agreement with Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph is a sign of the weakness of the charge that the bishop illegally failed to report suspected child sex abuse, a Missouri lawyer says.

The prosecutor of Clay County, Missouri is “reluctant” to follow the lead of the prosecutor in Jackson County because “he wasn’t going to have a successful prosecution,” St. Louis attorney Michael Quinlan suggested.

“The prosecution is avoiding a risky trial, and the bishop is avoiding what would be a less risky trial, but certainly a tremendous expense and bad publicity and all the terrible things that go along with that,” said Quinlan, who is not involved in the case.

“I would have thought that this would suggest to the prosecuting authorities in Jackson County that they might step back from the brink, but I don’t know whether it will have that effect or not.”

In Quinlan’s view, the possibility of a conviction is “slim” and the relevant statute “simply does not apply to the circumstance.”

“I think a fair minded jury should and would conclude that, there being no abuse victim, there could be no requirement to report,” he told CNA on Nov. 16.

Jackson County prosecutors have indicted Bishop Finn and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph on one misdemeanor count of failure to report suspected abuse of minors by a priest who faces child pornography charges.

Prosecutors in neighboring Clay County, however, have reached a five-year agreement with the bishop.

Under the agreement’s terms, the bishop must meet face-to-face with the Clay County prosecutor Daniel L. White each month for the next five years to discuss any allegations of child sex abuse against clergy or diocesan staff within the diocese’s facilities in the county. Bishop Finn must also describe what steps the diocese has taken to address any allegations.

White would then decide whether to encourage police to investigate any allegations.

The bishop also agreed to visit all nine parishes in Clay County to outline new programs that the diocese is implementing to protect children. The diocesan ombudsman and a new director of child and youth protection will accompany the bishop at the meetings.

“I am grateful for this opportunity to resolve this matter and to further strengthen our diocesan commitment to the protection of children,” Bishop Finn said Nov. 15. “The children of our community must be our first priority. Each deserves no more and no less. I stand ready to do all within my power not only to satisfy this agreement but also to ensure the welfare and safety of all children under our care.”

The legal case concerns the diocese’s response to Fr. Shawn Ratigan, a pastor who attempted suicide in December after a computer technician informed diocesan officials of suspicious images of children, mostly prepubescent girls, on the priest’s laptop. The officials consulted legal experts and informed Bishop Finn, but did not contact law enforcement about the priest until May 11, 2011.

Law enforcement investigations resulted in the May 19 arrest of the priest. He now faces multiple local and federal charges of possessing, producing and attempting to produce child pornography.

The agreement between Bishop Finn and county prosecutors prompted criticism from Peter Isely, a national board member of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

“Finn has now done here what bishops have almost always done — make any promises, payment or plea deal to avoid having to face tough questions in open court about their disgraceful and irresponsible deception,” Isely told the Kansas City Star.

However, Quinlan thought such a response was overstated.

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“Basically there was a delay of what, a few months? For people like SNAP and some of these people to run around saying that this is a cover-up akin to what went on in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, it’s just not at all fair.

“The diocese is the one who turned the guy in in the end. It’s not like they got caught hiding something, they turned him in. That doesn’t seem to ever get mentioned.”

Quinlan said he is a Catholic who has practiced law for over 25 years. He knows Bishop Finn “only by reputation” as “a holy priest and a good bishop, a conscientious bishop.”

He felt some of the media reports on the case were a “hatchet-job.”

The Kansas City Star’s latest reporting, he contended, wrongly made it appear “less like the prosecutor is trying to avoid litigation, and more like the bishop is. They both are.”

Quinlan said he is convinced that the Jackson County case against the bishop is a misuse of the statute.

“Catholics need to stand up and push back on some of this. I am one of the first Catholics to fault the bishops in the past for what they did, so this is not just a matter of defending a bishop no matter what. This is just not a comparable situation, and I think that there are political forces here.”

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While Bishop Finn has taken responsibility for the actions of the diocese, prosecuting him on a charge that could result in a year in prison is “just going too far.”

“It’s not supported by the facts,” Quinlan said.

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