The departure of Robert W. Finn as bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, although overdue, is a step forward for the diocese and thousands of area Catholics.
Finn’s conduct in office made him a symbol of the Catholic church’s failure to adequately address child sexual abuse by priests. He was the first Catholic bishop to be convicted of a crime related to that crisis.
Finn, 62, should have resigned after his 2012 conviction, if not sooner. He received two years of probation for failing to notify law enforcement authorities after pornographic images were found on the computer of a diocesan priest, Shawn Ratigan.
Finn’s decision to place secrecy above his moral and legal obligations enabled Ratigan to harm additional children. The former priest is serving a 50-year prison sentence for producing child pornography.
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Finn remained in office despite the scandal, a circumstance that anguished and angered many Catholics. The news Tuesday that Pope Francis accepted Finn’s resignation is a triumph for the lay persons who wrote letters, collected more than 250,000 petition signatures and spoke up for Finn to leave.
Challenging the world’s most powerful church hierarchy isn’t easy or comfortable, and Finn has powerful allies, including Bill Donohue, the fiery head of the ultra-conservative Catholic League. The persistence of lay Catholics is a testimony to how much they care about their church.
Finn, who traveled to Rome about a week ago, resigned under a section of church law that requests a diocesan bishop who has “become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause” to offer to step down.
While we do not know the precise reason for Finn’s resignation, sustained pressure from lay Catholics and mounting concerns from church leaders would seem to constitute a grave cause.
Finn’s successor, who has not yet been named, will have his work cut out. As the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests has noted, other church staff members knew of Ratigan’s act and remained silent, and other area priests over the years have been accused of abusing children.
Finn presided over a conspiracy of silence and legal resistance that will be difficult to displace.
Deputy U.S. Attorney Gene Porter, who prosecuted the Ratigan case, described that resistance after his sentencing.
“When it becomes clear at the outset of the investigation that the entire hierarchy of a centuries-old religious denomination does not seem willing to recognize that the children depicted in the images are, in fact, victims of child exploitation, nor seem very willing to help establish the identity of the children depicted, and instead are spending millions of dollars on legal counsel in an ill-advised effort to avoid having the priest and bishop accept legal responsibility for their crimes, then you know, as an investigator, that your work is cut out for you,” Porter said.
Finn, who declared his intent to lead the diocese in a conservative, “strict constructionist” obedience to Vatican teachings, showed few qualms during his 10 years as bishop about dislodging clergy and lay persons who failed to meet his theological litmus test. His arbitrary style wounded many area Catholics even before his role in protecting Ratigan came to light.
Outright removal by Pope Francis would have sent an unmistakable message. Still, it is rare for a bishop to step aside, and the reasons for Finn’s departure should not be obscured.
This is a man who held great power and used it to cover up a crime and protect a calcified inner circle. He needed to go. Others in the church should heed his fate.