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KC bishop’s legal team fights to get criminal charges dropped

By TONY RIZZO
The Kansas City Star

Attorneys representing Bishop Robert Finn filed motions Wednesday seeking dismissal of the criminal charge filed against him in October.

The misdemeanor charge alleges that Finn failed to report suspected child abuse related to a priest accused of child pornography charges.

In addition to charging Finn individually, Jackson County prosecutors filed a criminal charge against the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, which he heads.

Finn is the highest-ranking Catholic official in the United States to face criminal prosecution related to the church’s child sexual abuse scandal.

On Wednesday, Finn’s attorneys filed four motions related to dismissing the criminal charge, each based on different grounds, and another motion seeking to have the bishop tried separately from the diocese if the case proceeds to trial.

Defense attorneys Gerald Handley, J.R. Hobbs and Marilyn Keller maintained in their motions that the law Finn is charged under is unconstitutionally vague on its face as well as unconstitutional in how it was applied in Finn’s case.

They also argued that the grand jury that indicted Finn and the diocese was not properly instructed on the law.

“The text of the indictment appears to be the result of a faulty instruction which implies the existence of a legal duty on Bishop Finn under the reporting statutes,” the defense wrote in its motion.

The grand jury indictment alleged that Finn, as a member of the clergy, and the diocese, as the operator of schools, are required under Missouri law to report reasonable suspicions of child abuse. But they did not do that for five months in the case of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, the indictment alleges. Ratigan faces child pornography charges in Clay County and federal court. He has pleaded not guilty.

In Wednesday’s motions, Finn’s attorneys argued that he could not be prosecuted for violating the law because he was not the designated reporter for the diocese. A response team headed by another diocesan official had that responsibility, they argued.

“While Bishop Finn may be a mandatory reporter, by statute his legal duty to report is extinguished when the religious organization designates an agent or agents to report in an official capacity on behalf of the organization,” the defense wrote in its motion.

Attorneys for the diocese on Wednesday said that they were joining in the dismissal motions and were also seeking to have the cases tried separately if they proceed to trial.

A spokesman for Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said Wednesday that the office was not surprised by the motions and would oppose them.

“We believe the charges filed by the grand jury are appropriate,” said spokesman Mike Mansur.

Finn has pleaded not guilty. In a statement released after the charges were filed, he said he has cooperated with authorities and initiated changes to strengthen the church’s efforts to protect children.

“We have carried this out faithfully,” Finn said at the time.

The charge against Finn carries a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. The diocese faces a fine of up to $5,000.

Missouri’s child abuse hot line law requires a broad range of professions to notify child welfare authorities when they have any evidence to suspect abuse or neglect. Teachers, doctors, jail guards, ministers and a host of others are covered by the mandatory reporting requirement.

The law was used in 2003 when Greene County prosecutors charged a 40-year-old nurse for not calling the hot line after noticing fingertip-size bruises along the spine of Dominic James, a 2-year-old later killed by his foster father.

A judge threw out the reporting law, saying it was unconstitutionally vague. But in 2004, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that the statute’s language — requiring a report when the professional “has reasonable cause to suspect” — was clear enough.

Prosecutors ultimately dropped the case against the nurse.

Finn’s attorneys note that Missouri Supreme Court ruling in Wednesday’s motions, but they argue that the court’s decision was based on issues different than those present in Finn’s case.

To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to trizzo@kcstar.com.

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