Faith

Key papal adviser says the pope ‘urgently’ needs to address the situation of Bishop Robert Finn

File photo: In 2012, a Jackson County judge convicted Bishop Robert Finn of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph of misdemeanor failure to report suspicions of child abuse for not telling authorities about a priest who later pleaded guilty to producing child pornography.
File photo: In 2012, a Jackson County judge convicted Bishop Robert Finn of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph of misdemeanor failure to report suspicions of child abuse for not telling authorities about a priest who later pleaded guilty to producing child pornography. The Kansas City Star

Breaking two years of silence since the 2012 conviction of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, a key cardinal and adviser to the pope said the church must deal with the situation soon.

Speaking with the CBS newsmagazine “60 Minutes,” Cardinal Seán O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, said he understands the message that leaving Finn in place sends to Catholics.

“It’s a question the Holy See needs to address urgently,” O’Malley said in an interview with correspondent Norah O’Donnell.

A spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, which Finn leads, declined to comment on O’Malley’s remarks.

A Jackson County judge convicted Finn of misdemeanor failure to report suspicions of child abuse for not telling authorities about a priest who later pleaded guilty to producing child pornography.

CBS on Friday released excerpts of the interview with O’Malley, which is expected to air Sunday evening.

In the excerpt, O’Donnell followed up by asking O’Malley if Pope Francis recognized the urgency of Finn’s situation in Kansas City.

“There’s a recognition … from Pope Francis,” O’Malley replied.

O’Malley’s comments carry weight because of his close relationship with Pope Francis. He advises the pontiff on church reform as one of eight members of the Council of Cardinals. Last December, the pope appointed O’Malley to lead a commission that deals with the sexual abuse of minors in the church worldwide.

Scrutiny of Finn has heightened this fall after he completed two years of probation on his criminal conviction.

In September, the Vatican dispatched Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, Ontario, to examine Finn’s leadership of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese and prepare a report. According to participants in the meeting, Prendergast questioned local church leaders about Finn and how his conviction had challenged his ability to lead Catholics here.

 

In a cordial letter to Jeff Weis, a local Catholic who has petitioned the church to remove Finn, Prendergast wrote on Oct. 14 that he had completed his report, which “is now in the hands of Vatican officials.”

“Please pray that, whatever the outcome of the consultation, the mission of the Church may be furthered for God’s greater glory,” Prendergast wrote.

During the “60 Minutes” interview, O’Malley acknowledged that Finn’s conviction would prevent him from teaching Sunday school in the Boston archdiocese, a stinging observation about a sitting bishop and spiritual shepherd.

Until now, no member of the U.S. Catholic hierarchy has publicly spoken critically of Finn.

Weis said he was encouraged that national media and senior church leaders still were discussing Finn’s conviction two years after a judge handed it down. He said he will reserve judgment on O’Malley’s remarks until he sees the interview in its full context Sunday evening.

“I have to take a wait-and-see approach,” Weis said. “It’s been a long road. Glaciers move faster than the Catholic Church.”

In response to the “60 Minutes” interview, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker issued a statement saying she was “encouraged by comments from within the church urging stronger action to protect children.”

The Rev. James Connell, a priest and canon lawyer from the Milwaukee archdiocese who has been critical of Finn, said he was encouraged, but not satisfied, by the cardinal’s comments.

“I would express gratitude that Cardinal O’Malley spoke as openly and honestly as he did,” Connell said. “But it’s one thing to say that it needs urgent action and another for that action to be taken.”

Connell said that simply removing Finn from his post in Kansas City might miss an opportunity for healing. He said the pope should consider appointing a “temporary administrator” for the diocese and then suspending Finn as bishop for two years, much as the judge put him on probation.

Finn then could spend each day talking with abuse survivors, parish members and reporters and fully answering their questions about his stewardship of the diocese, Connell said. Finally he could reflect and write reports on how this “laboratory of healing” had worked.

“Let’s turn this into something positive,” Connell said.

Finn came under fire for his handling of now-defrocked priest Shawn Ratigan’s child pornography case.

In December 2010, a computer technician found hundreds of lewd photos of young girls on Ratigan’s laptop computer. Finn and other church leaders and employees did not notify authorities of the full extent of their suspicions for months.

Ratigan later pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. His case triggered a wave of litigation alleging that church leaders had covered up sexual abuse by priests in the diocese.

Of the seven lawsuits filed related to Ratigan, four settled for a total of $3.7 million, two were dismissed and one remains pending.

In total, the diocese has spent about $17 million settling abuse lawsuits in the last 16 months, many for allegations that were decades old.

In 2008, Finn approved a $10 million settlement with 47 plaintiffs. But after Ratigan’s crimes were exposed, an arbitrator in July ordered the diocese to pay an additional $1.1 million for violating the terms of that settlement.

To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to mmorris@kcstar.com.

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