KC bishop admits failure in abuse case, says he'll address alleged 'concealment'

Bishop Robert W. Finn
Bishop Robert W. Finn

.- The head of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese admits he failed to act on suspicions voiced to him last year, about a priest arrested in May for possessing child pornography. But he's waiting to respond to a new lawsuit, which makes unsubstantiated claims that he “concealed” information to prevent a scandal.

“As bishop, I take full responsibility for these failures and sincerely apologize to you for them,” said Bishop Robert W. Finn in a June 3 message to all people of the diocese. “Clearly, we have to do more. Please know that we have, and will continue to cooperate with all local authorities regarding these matters.”

Bishop Finn acknowledged that “human failure” and the “sins of a few” had brought “shame, anger, and confusion” to his diocese. On May 19, police took former St. Patrick's pastor Fr. Shawn Ratigan into custody and charged him with three counts of possessing child pornography.

In an unrelated case, the diocese suspended Fr. Michael Tierney from ministry June 2 over abuse allegations dating back three decades.

Fr. Tierney has denied the charges, and is cooperating with an ongoing inquiry. But the more recent case of Fr. Ratigan has been an embarrassment to the diocese – highlighting what Bishop Finn called “sobering realities” about “serious lapses in communication” within his own chancery.

Fr. Ratigan's arrest on May 19 ended a six-month drama that began in December 2010. During that month, a computer technician found disturbing photographs of young girls on the priest's hard drive. The photographs suggested inappropriate behavior and attraction toward children, but local police determined that they did not technically constitute child pornography.

Bishop Finn regrets that he “didn't ask the police earlier to conduct a full investigation.” Fr. Ratigan himself attempted suicide in December, after the diocese learned about the suspect images. He survived, however, and Bishop Finn sent him out of state for a psychiatric evaluation.

When Fr. Ratigan returned to the diocese, Bishop Finn suspended him from St. Patrick's and let him live with a group of priests. He demanded that Fr. Ratigan have no contact with children, and restricted him from possessing a camera or computer.

By May 12, the diocese’s vicar general, Msgr. Robert Murphy, had received repeated reports of Fr. Ratigan violating his agreement with the bishop. The vicar general notified the same police officer he had initially contacted about the suggestive photographs. Detectives searched items held at the home of one of the priest's relatives, and found digital storage devices containing child pornography.

The priest now faces felony charges, and a lawsuit from the parents of a girl he allegedly abused starting in 2006.

That lawsuit, filed on June 2, also names Bishop Finn as a defendant. The girl's parents say the bishop is responsible for the abuse that continued even after “an employee of the diocese reported to the diocese that she had observed suspicious behavior involving Defendant Ratigan and a 4 year old girl.”

This report is said to have been made “in approximately 2006.” But the complaint does not specify which of the diocese's “employees” made the report, nor does it indicate who received the report on behalf of “the diocese.”

Diocesan spokeswoman Rebecca Summers told CNA on June 6 that over 2,000 people could be considered “employees” of the diocese. The lawsuit provides no other information about the individual, apart from her gender.

The legal complaint, filed by the prominent Vatican adversary Jeff Anderson, goes on to assert that “the Diocese and Defendant Bishop Finn concealed the report” – which he is not explicitly said to have ever received – “in order to protect Defendants Ratigan, Bishop Finn, and Diocese from scandal.”

Anderson and the other lawyers also say Bishop Finn conspired to destroy Fr. Ratigan's computer, and erase evidence of a crime, in December 2010 – during the same month that the vicar general was providing police with descriptions of files on the priest's computer.

At a June 3 “listening session” held at St. Thomas More parish, Bishop Finn said he wanted to address these charges, but had been advised against it by his lawyers.

“As much as it pains me to not be able to respond or to explain,” he said, “our diocesan attorneys have counseled me to be patient and to wait for the appropriate time to directly answer to these allegations.”

But Bishop Finn has acknowledged that he did neglect an opportunity to act on suspicions about Fr. Ratigan that came to his attention during a brief conversation in May 2010.

On May 19 of that year – exactly one year before Fr. Ratigan's arrest – Saint Patrick School principal Julie Hess presented Msgr. Murphy with a letter detailing parents' concerns about Fr. Ratigan.

“I seek to fulfill my responsibility as school principal,” she wrote, “in relaying a growing body of parent and teacher concerns regarding Pastor Shawn Ratigan's perceived inappropriate behavior with children.”

“Parents, staff members, and parishioners are discussing his actions and whether or not he may be a child molester. They have researched pedophilia on the Internet and brought in sample articles with examples of how Father Shawn's actions fit the profile of a child predator.” 

Bishop Finn states that he did not see the letter until it was leaked to the press following Fr. Ratigan's arrest – more than a year after Hess gave it to his vicar general.

Instead, as Bishop Finn explained in a May 27 statement, Msgr. Murphy gave him a “brief verbal summary of the report” and of a “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.”

Bishop Finn did not request a copy of Hess' letter in order to survey the priests' reported behavior for himself.

“To the best of my knowledge,” he admitted, “no one on my staff, other than Msgr. Murphy, read the report.”

At that time, Bishop Finn noted, diocesan officials had “no knowledge of any inappropriate photographs or images in Shawn Ratigan's possession.”

But the bishop did not shy away from acknowledging the crucial step he failed to take – when he chose to rely on Msgr. Murphy's summary of the report, and Fr. Ratigan's promises to change.

“Hindsight makes it clear that I should have requested from Msgr. Murphy an actual copy of the report,” said Bishop Finn on May 27. “And, so, I also have to change.”

The Bishop did not see the letter for himself until May 26, when a blogger released a leaked copy of a document which appeared to be Hess' May 2010 report on Fr. Ratigan.

An official at the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese, speaking on background, told CNA that the leaked document is considered authentic. CNA also spoke to Hess, who said she could not provide any information regarding the letter or Fr. Ratigan.

Since the priest's arrest, Bishop Finn has already met with members of the St. Patrick's community, as well as priests of the diocese, diocesan staff, and the chair of the diocese's independent review board.

“I will be meeting with others, to determine how best to change our internal structure, reporting and procedures,” he said. “The changes could be unsettling but, more than ever, I realize that they are necessary.”

“Please pray for me in these resolutions,” he asked. “And, let us pray for each other in these difficult days.”

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