Church needed $1.1 million penalty as reminder of its obligations to children

07/01/2014 3:26 PM

07/01/2014 8:39 PM

The convicted proof of what led to the latest scandal for the Kansas City diocese languishes in prison today: Shawn Ratigan, sentenced to 50 years for child pornography.

The details of Ratigan’s guilt, the horrendous way the diocese stalled instead of immediately reporting him to authorities, is at play now in an order to pay $1.1 million in a breach-of-contract suit.

To the public, stories that the Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Diocese is accused of breaking agreed-upon obligations to protect children may sound like old news. Some people might think this is badgering by the diocese’s many critics. It is true that too many people seem to take glee from every negative twist and turn in sexual abuse cases involving Roman Catholic priests.

But this is about the safety of children. And the diocese, as the Ratigan case clearly proved, needed to be reminded again where its loyalties — its legal and moral obligations — must stand.

A 2008 settlement of $10 million to 47 victims and their families was intended to put to rest a large number of civil cases against the diocese for sexual abuse claims against priests. The diocese agreed to the settlement under the current Bishop Robert Finn. It also agreed to a list of nonmonetary commitments to change its ways and institute more safeguards for children.

One would think that a $10 million payment would be enough to cause deep introspection and change.

Maybe it did at some levels, for many clergy. Faithful parishioners have certainly struggled through the scandals, along with the most obvious — those who claim to have suffered the sexual abuse.

But then there came the case of Ratigan, with all its galling details. Alerted by parishioners of their suspicions, the diocese did not react appropriately. Even the pornographic contents of Ratigan’s computer weren’t enough to immediately motivate appropriate action. Later, the diocese simply moved him to a new post and gave him a stern warning. As the court record shows, he went on to abuse again.

Children were harmed because the diocese moved to protect a priest before it reached to shield children. The courts even found Finn culpable, guilty of the misdemeanor of failure to report suspected child abuse.

Ratigan is no longer a priest. The Vatican approved the process to remove him from the priesthood earlier this year, a process initiated by the diocese.

Other positive moves by the diocese also have occurred, and they must be acknowledged. Even the arbitrator who ordered the breach payment noted the dedicated work of the Victim Advocacy Program. Numerous examples in recent years show how this nonclerical, independent team has effectively handled allegations, reporting suspicions of abuse to police and state child welfare agencies.

But one concern lingers. Could the leadership of the diocese revert to moving to its own codes in efforts to save the church’s reputation and possibly its finances? The arbitrator’s ruling, which the diocese disputes, seemingly says “yes.” Such a reminder is necessary at this point in time, largely because of the Ratigan case.

Time will tell if church leadership will continue to need legal and potentially harmful financial slaps to keep its policies in line.

If that is what it takes to protect children, so be it.

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to msanchez@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter at msanchezcolumn.

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