Almost a year after Bishop Robert Finn and his diocese were charged with failing to report child-abuse suspicions, they will appear in court today to lay their case before a judge and not a jury.
In a surprising move made public Wednesday in a court filing, the bishop and the church have agreed to have a judge decide in a bench trial whether they are guilty. The move avoids a lengthy jury trial, which was set to open Sept. 24.
Prosecutors and lawyers representing Finn and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph are sorting through a series of facts about the case, a spokesman for Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said.
“This means that all the parties in the case — the diocese, Bishop Finn and the prosecutor’s office — are negotiating what the facts and testimony will be,” said Mike Mansur. “Those will be presented to the judge.”
Jackson County Circuit Judge John Torrence is expected to issue verdicts today.
Finn and the diocese each face two misdemeanor counts of failing to report suspicions of child abuse involving their handling of hundreds of lewd photographs found on the Rev. Shawn Ratigan’s laptop computer.
Each 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 for each charge.
Lawyers representing the diocese and the bishop declined to comment Wednesday on the trial change. A spokesman for the diocese also declined to comment.
Defense lawyers with no ties to the case said all parties can find something to like in the new procedure. For the defense, a bench trial puts the decision in the hands of a judge, widely respected by both prosecutors and defenders, who can apply the law and is unlikely to be swayed by emotional testimony and arguments.
“This is a pretty narrow legal issue,” said Pat Peters, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor. “It’s not about Ratigan. It’s not about the bigger issue everyone is talking about: child sexual abuse. It’s about whether (Bishop Finn) was a mandated reporter and whether he had a duty to report.”
Prosecutors benefit by keeping vulnerable witnesses, which include child victims and their families, out of the public eye. Even so, Rebecca Randles, an attorney who represents some of Ratigan’s victims, said she had mixed feelings about a bench trial.
“It’s always a good thing when a victim is not required to be further traumatized by the court system,” she said. However, she added, “We find the move incredibly surprising. The jury system is the best system of justice that we have, and it’s always an unusual move to move out of the jury system.”
Defense lawyer John Picerno noted that the court would benefit by not having to sort through a large panel of potential jurors to find an unbiased jury.
“Quite frankly, it would be a real tough chore to pick a jury in this case,” Picerno said. “I would imagine that a great number of jurors would be biased one way or the other.”
Some local Catholics were surprised to hear there would be no jury trial.
“I’m absolutely shocked,” said Tom White, a former priest in the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. “I had reserved the date on my calendar.”
White said he was disappointed that the judge, not a jury, would be issuing verdicts.
“The judge issues his findings, and it’s done,” he said. “But we have a lot of questions that haven’t been answered. I had hoped that the trial would have allowed some of that to come out.”
Ratigan attempted suicide just after the diocese learned of the troubling pictures on his computer in December 2010. He was hospitalized and sent for a mental evaluation, after which Finn reassigned him to an Independence mission house and ordered him to stay away from children, computers and cameras. The diocese reported Ratigan to police in May 2011 after he repeatedly violated those orders.
A few days later, state authorities charged him with possession of child pornography. Federal authorities charged him in August 2011.
After Ratigan’s arrest, it was revealed that diocesan officials had been warned more than a year earlier about Ratigan’s disturbing interactions with children but took no action.
A Jackson County grand jury indicted Finn and the diocese in October 2011, alleging that they failed to report Ratigan to authorities for five months after discovering the photos. Both have pleaded not guilty. Finn has maintained that he never saw the images and that he delegated the diocese’s initial response and management to his subordinates.
Ratigan, 46, awaits sentencing after pleading guilty in federal court in August to five counts of producing and attempting to produce child pornography. He still faces pornography charges in Clay County.
The bench-trial announcement comes less than a week after a diocesan computer manager recanted sworn testimony in a civil case in which she originally quoted Finn as saying, “Sometimes, boys will be boys,” after she raised concerns about the photographs she found on Ratigan’s computer.
The diocese commissioned former U.S. attorney Todd Graves to lead a study of its handling of the Ratigan case. In August 2011, Graves issued a report saying that the diocese had not followed its own procedures. The report found that “individuals in positions of authority reacted to events in ways that could have jeopardized the safety of children in diocesan parishes, schools and families.”