Bishop Robert Finn stood before a circuit court judge last week and said he was sorry for the pain that children in his diocese had suffered.
Then, moments before the judge sentenced him to two years of probation for failing to report suspected child abuse, Finn said he was grateful the case was over.
Yet child and family advocates, as well as sexual abuse therapists and investigators, say they don’t want it to be over. They want the impact of Finn’s guilty verdict, and the frank dialogue it has spurred, to create a culture where adults finally stand up for children who can’t speak for themselves.
It’s not just Kansas City, where Finn and other church officials failed to immediately report a priest who took pornographic pictures of young girls.
It’s Philadelphia, where a monsignor was sentenced in July for covering up the sexual abuse of children by priests.
It’s Penn State, where former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of sexually assaulting 10 boys — and top university officials, including football coach Joe Paterno, failed for years to report allegations to authorities.
The cases have stirred a wave of anger and disgust that advocates and others hope will mark a turning point: A realization that it’s everyone’s responsibility to be vigilant, to watch for signs of child sexual abuse and to report it immediately.
“If you witness something, or know something, it’s your moral duty to let someone know who can help that child,” said Lisa Mizell of the Child Protection Center in Kansas City.
“I think in those cases, there were people who knew what was going on and chose not to come forward. There was some justification in their mind that they had done enough.”
Already, people say they’re seeing changes. The taboo subject of child sexual abuse is out in the open. Professionals are seeking more training on recognizing and reporting the abuse. And survivors — moved by the courage of other victims — are breaking their silence for the first time.
In sentencing Finn on Thursday, Jackson County Circuit Judge John Torrence made no secret that he hoped the verdict would have a broad and lasting impact.
“I hope this ends a chapter of history that has been a long and dark chapter, and I hope this begins a new chapter in the book in this community and other communities,” Torrence said, looking down at Finn. “And that truly children will no longer be subjected to this kind of treatment as has happened so often in the past.”
Even the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has seen an enhanced awareness, including more calls from people reporting their abuse suspicions.
“When cases come to light, it draws people’s attention and shines light on what is otherwise a dark situation,” said Marc Bennett, a deputy district attorney in Sedgwick County, Kan.
“The Sandusky name ... has become a noun in and of itself,” Bennett said. “It’s a sad commentary, but it’s also good that people are discussing things.”Reporting and reacting
For years, people have shied away from reporting their fears that a child was being sexually abused.
They didn’t have proof. And if they were wrong, they thought, they could ruin the life of a neighbor or a coach or someone from church.
“It’s easy to report the stranger on the corner,” said Julie Donelon, president and CEO of Kansas City’s Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, known as MOCSA. But with child sex crimes, “We often look the other way because we don’t want to believe it’s happening in our back yard.”
People need to start thinking beyond the person with the suspicious behavior, said Kansas City police Capt. Joseph Chapman.
“The question should rest in every person’s mind, ‘Who is more important in this situation? The child or the person under suspicion where it may turn out that nothing criminal happened?’ ” Chapman said.
“It’s more important to keep the child’s safety in mind.”
Said Donelon: “Until people feel comfortable about speaking about behaviors of people they know, we’re not going to have that systemic change.”
Jim Caccamo believes people are beginning to realize they don’t need to have evidence of a crime to make a hotline call. The police and child welfare authorities will do the investigating.
“All you have to have is the suspicion that abuse has taken place,” he said. “You don’t have to be sure.”
When Caccamo was head of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph’s Independent Review Board, he evaluated cases of suspected abuse and made recommendations to the bishop.
He never got a chance with the case of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan. The diocese never told the review board about the priest’s troubling behavior — something Caccamo later said “just took my breath away.” Caccamo found out about the allegations only when Ratigan was arrested in May 2011, five months after pornographic photographs were discovered on his laptop.
In the wake of Finn’s case, Kansas City police have had requests for more training on mandated reporting. In the sessions, instructors go over what Missouri requires of reporters, and in the future the department probably will incorporate what authorities learned in the Finn investigation.
Training could be key in making a lasting impact in identifying, and ultimately preventing, sex crimes against children, said Kansas City police Sgt. Roy Murry.
“If anyone who deals with large amounts of children is trained on what to do, to report immediately and not delay, that will be the most helpful thing,” said Murry, who oversees the crimes-against-children unit. “If we can get that across, that would have a long-lasting impact.”
Caccamo thinks society is demanding a change.
“After all these cases, it has become more of a social norm to report these things,” he said.
“Does that mean this will never happen again? Of course not. People do evil. But I think these cases cause people to be just sick about this. I’m sure our children as a result are better served.”Strength in numbers
One woman was molested years ago and never said a word. Another said her father sexually abused her as a child. He’d long since died, but she kept the abuse a secret.
Until she read about the abuse of other children in recent years.
When high-profile cases hit the media, like Sandusky’s and Ratigan’s, survivors reach out. They call hotlines or therapists eager for help, victim advocates say.
“It’s just bringing them back to the time when they were victims. This is opening up old wounds they have had,” said Donelon. “The difference they’ll see now is there are agencies and organizations able to help them.”
And it fuels the conversation, which advocates say could eventually lead to permanent change.
When two sisters in Wichita shared their story of years of abuse by their father and brothers, hotline calls poured in from others who had been abused. Some had never shared their stories but were inspired by the sisters, Bennett said.
“They came out articulate, brave and awe-inspiring to people,” he said. “For people who have gone through it, it’s a reminder of a life-altering experience, and the fact that the girls had the nerve, the will and strength to do it gave them strength to say, ‘I can do it, too.’ ”
Bennett has seen firsthand how difficult it is for those who have been abused to come forward. In the jury selection process for sex crimes cases, he often asks if anyone knows someone close to them who’s been a victim of a sexual assault, or if they themselves have. Often, people raise their hands.
He’ll then ask how the police handled the case.
In four or five cases over his career in which women have said they were abused as children, their responses to that second question were overwhelming.
“They’d say, ‘I’ve never told anyone before,’ ” Bennett said. “They said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever talked about it.’ To stave it off that long and it comes out when they’re under oath, in a room full of strangers?
“Imagine what kind of impact a case like Sandusky’s could have. They’re carrying around this secret for so long and then hear what’s happened to others.”New safeguards in place
After Finn’s trial, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said her office would closely monitor the bishop and the diocese for the next two years to ensure they follow mandatory reporting requirements.
It’s all about keeping children safe, Baker said.
“All of us are responsible for the protection of children,” she said. “None of us should ever place on a child the responsibility for their own safety. That’s our job. That’s a leader’s job.”
Jenifer Valenti and Carrie Cooper say they couldn’t agree more.
The two were appointed by Finn last year as part of the diocese’s five-point plan to strengthen its efforts to protect children. Valenti, a former assistant Jackson County prosecutor, is the diocese’s ombudsman, charged with taking and investigating reports of abuse, suspicious or inappropriate behavior or sexual misconduct. Cooper is director of the new Office of Child and Youth Protection.
Cooper and Valenti agreed that Finn’s case has resulted in positive changes in the diocese.
“We’ve had some components in place — our safe-environment training has been in place for many years,” Cooper said. “The big change, though, is the whole reporting procedure — to have a number to call, a person to go to.”
The diocese also has expanded its approach to reporting abuse, Valenti said.
“In the past, people were encouraged to report abuse, but now our members are really encouraged to understand ... what are the signs of potential abuse, how predators act, and they’re encouraged to report that behavior as well,” Valenti said. “So it’s a much more proactive approach.”
Before her position was created, Valenti said, all abuse reports went to the vicar general.
“There’s been a shift of focus,” she said. “With the fact that I was an assistant prosecuting attorney, that I’m a mother, people who may not have felt comfortable coming forward to a cleric may feel more comfortable in coming to me.”
Cooper said her office recently established a relationship with the Missouri Department of Social Services’ children’s division, which conducted a program on mandatory reporting for all the new teachers in the diocese.
Valenti said she already had implemented some of the requirements in Finn’s terms of probation, such as working with the FBI to teach clergy and staff what constitutes pornography and child obscenity.
“One of the things I did when I took this position was reach out to law enforcement, including the FBI Cyber Crimes Task Force, to establish an ongoing relationship,” she said. “So I’ve been working very closely with them almost since the day I started.”
Last month, the diocese announced that in Valenti’s first year on the job, she handled 79 reports. Of those, 20 cases were alleged sexual abuse of a minor and 20 were about boundary violations. Thirty-nine were for issues outside the diocese’s jurisdiction and were referred to civil authorities, administrative staff or caseworkers.
Valenti said she intends to issue an annual update on the figures.
“I think we can all look forward to looking at these statistics and check what happens next year,” she said. “We are going to look at trends to see what areas we need to focus on.”
Last week, the diocese released a supplement to Valenti’s report that provided financial details for the Diocesan Property and Casualty Insurance Program for the fiscal year ending June 30.
According to the report, the diocese spent nearly $1.4 million on legal fees for the grand jury and criminal proceedings involving Finn and the diocese. It also spent nearly $2 million in legal fees for civil sex abuse lawsuits, including $287,000 on four suits against the diocese involving Ratigan.
In addition, the diocese spent $90,569 for the Office of Child and Youth Protection; $67,585 for costs associated with the ombudsman’s office; and $39,154 for counseling for 44 abuse victims and their family members.
All the efforts help, advocates say. But most important is that people finally understand it’s up to them to protect defenseless children, said Dennis Meier, associate executive director of Synergy Services, a Kansas City organization that responds to children and families who have experienced trauma.
“There are folks who said, ‘Joe Paterno shouldn’t have been held accountable. He didn’t do it,’ ” Meier said. “ ‘The bishop shouldn’t have been held accountable. He didn’t do it.’ The argument is they were one step removed — should (they) be held accountable?”
“... It’s about standing up for children and giving them a voice and protecting them from abuse.
“It’s that simple.”