Priest sentenced to 50 years for lurid photographs of young girls

09/12/2013 4:12 PM

09/13/2013 12:42 AM

The little girl once called the Rev. Shawn Ratigan her best friend.

Now, he is the monster whose face invades her dreams, the man she fears will come back and hurt her again.

On Thursday, a federal judge in Kansas City ensured that Ratigan, the Catholic priest who used that little girl and four others to feed his obsessive lust for child pornography, never will be seen by them again.

U.S. District Judge Gary Fenner followed the recommendation of federal prosecutors and sentenced the 47-year-old Ratigan to 50 years in prison. There is no parole in the federal prison system.

“Your conduct shows, Mr. Ratigan, that you are a chronic sexual abuser,” Fenner said before imposing the sentence. “You violated the trust of individuals to an extent that is devastating.”

In seeking the lengthy sentence for Ratigan, prosecutors portrayed him as an arrogant and reckless man who flagrantly disregarded his priestly vows, used young girls as sexual objects, and repeatedly lied to his superiors, fellow priests and police when he was found out.

“Fifty years is necessary to protect society from him,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Katharine Fincham said.

Robert Kuchar, Ratigan’s federal public defender, asked the judge to impose the minimum sentence of 15 years. He and several relatives of Ratigan who spoke Thursday all pointed out the good things he had done during most of his life.

“Even the minimum is a very, very long sentence,” Kuchar said. “Locking him up for life is just not reasonable.”

Ratigan, his priestly garments now replaced by an orange jail jumpsuit, choked up with emotion as he offered apologies for the damage he caused to his victims, their families and “the church I loved.”

He, too, asked the judge to sentence him to 15 years.

“I hope that you won’t sentence me to a life of hell on earth,” Ratigan said. “Prison is hell, and I know I deserve 15 years. But 50 years? Come on, I don’t think so.”

Among those who attended Thursday’s hearing in the packed courtroom were the mother and father of one victim, the little girl who considered the priest her friend.

“I trusted Shawn,” the mother told the judge. “I had a personal relationship with him. My family went to him for confession, and all along, it should have been him confessing.”

During the hearing, Fincham showed the mother a photograph of her 2-year-old daughter that Ratigan had taken at church and given to her as a gift.

“He told me it was precious and he wanted me to have it,” she said.

What she didn’t know was that “precious” picture was taken during the same series of photographs that showed a close-up picture of her child’s bare crotch and led to one of the five child pornography charges to which Ratigan pleaded guilty.

“Can you imagine the nerve, the arrogance?” Fincham asked.

The fallout from what Fincham called Ratigan’s “uncontrolled obsession with prepubescent girls” led to multiple civil lawsuits against the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and criminal charges against its leader, Bishop Robert W. Finn.

Finn, the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic Church official convicted of criminal charges related to child sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, is serving two years of probation for failing to report suspicions against Ratigan when they first surfaced.

After Ratigan’s sentencing Thursday, Finn released a lengthy written statement touting the work the diocese has done to better protect children.

“To victims of abuse, their families and the community at large,” the statement said, “I renew my heartfelt apology and firm pledge to make our Catholic institutions second to none in the protection of children and the vulnerable.”

Church officials learned of Ratigan’s criminal activities in December 2010, when a computer technician discovered disturbing images on his laptop computer. Six months elapsed before church officials notified law enforcement.

A grand jury indicted Ratigan in 2011 on 13 counts of production, attempted production and possession of child pornography involving five girls ranging in age from 2 to 9. Some of those incidents occurred on or around church property.

Ratigan pleaded guilty in August 2012 to five charges — one for each of the victims. The other eight counts involving other incidents with the same victims were dismissed by prosecutors Thursday as part of an oral agreement with Ratigan and his attorney.

Even before the lurid photos were discovered, concerns about Ratigan’s behavior around children had been raised. The principal of St. Patrick School in Kansas City, North, told Ratigan’s superior that teachers and parents were troubled by some of Ratigan’s hands-on interactions with children.

Later, when the pictures were discovered, Ratigan attempted suicide. But he assured church officials he had never had sexual contact with any children.

In their pre-sentence memorandum, prosecutors said that was not true.

Three of the counts for which he was sentenced Thursday involved him touching children while posing them for pictures, according to prosecutors.

In an incident involving a 2-year-old victim in the choir loft at St. Joseph Church in Easton, Mo., Ratigan touched the girl’s buttocks. He touched the inner thigh, buttocks and labia of a 5-year-old victim he photographed, prosecutors said.

In a third incident involving a girl who was 8 or 9 at the time, he touched her inner thigh, buttocks and labia.

Ratigan also touched her buttocks through her clothing for “the obvious purpose of obtaining more sexually explicit photos,” prosecutors said in their memorandum.

In arguing for a lengthy prison sentence, prosecutors said that after the first photos were discovered, diocesan officials ordered Ratigan to not use a computer and have no contact with or photograph children.

“Within months, he was violating every one of the above restrictions,” prosecutors wrote.

Prosecutors said that even after Finn confronted Ratigan about the violations, Ratigan used his cellphone to take nonsexual photos of prepubescent girls.

Rebecca Randles, a Kansas City attorney representing the families of victims who did not attend the hearing, released a written statement:

“Our clients will receive a sense of closure that this piece is done, a sense of justice that there is some kind of consequences to these kinds of actions because they have lived with it for two years, and their children will live with this for the rest of their lives.”

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