Bishop Finn avoids indictment by entering diversion program

Bishop Robert Finn on Tuesday avoided a possible criminal misdemeanor indictment in his handling of a priest facing child pornography charges by agreeing to enter into a diversion program with the Clay County prosecutor.

Authorities have pledged not to prosecute Finn, the leader of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, if he lives up to the terms of a five-year diversion agreement.

Clay County Prosecutor Daniel L. White also announced that a grand jury had indicted the Rev. Shawn F. Ratigan on three counts of possessing child pornography. The new indictment supersedes a state criminal complaint that charged Ratigan on May 19. Ratigan, 46, also faces a 13-count federal indictment of possessing, producing and attempting to produce child pornography. He remains in federal custody.

The Clay County indictment alleges that Ratigan possessed three images of child pornography on a computer on May 13. White said each of those counts is a Class C felony, punishable by up to seven years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.

Finn also is facing a misdemeanor charge of failing to report child abuse suspicions in Jackson County. He has pleaded not guilty. Finn is the highest-ranking Catholic official in the country to be held criminally accountable for the alleged misconduct of a priest in his diocese.

His agreement with Clay County requires him to meet face-to-face with White or his successor each month for the next five years to discuss any allegations of child sex abuse levied against clergy or diocesan staff within the diocese’s Clay County facilities. Finn also is to describe what steps the diocese has taken to address the allegations. White would then decide whether to encourage police to investigate any allegations.

Finn also agreed to visit all nine Clay County parishes to outline new programs the diocese is implementing to protect children. In those meetings, Finn will be accompanied by the diocesan ombudsman and a new director of child and youth protection.

“This will be a learning experience for the Bishop,” White said in a statement. “The diocese and the bishop acknowledge past reporting systems have flaws.” He said having an outsider in the mix who can trigger a criminal investigation “gives parents and children in our community confidence that if anything were to happen it will be promptly and effectively addressed.”

Finn, who was in Baltimore on Tuesday attending the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual fall assembly, issued a statement saying he was “grateful for this opportunity to resolve this matter and to further strengthen our diocesan commitment to the protection of children.”

“The children of our community must be our first priority,” Finn said. “Each deserves no more and no less. I stand ready to do all within my power not only to satisfy this agreement but also to ensure the welfare and safety of all children under our care.”

Finn said the agreement assured a “close collaboration” between him, diocesan ombudsman Jenifer Valenti and the director of child and youth protection, who has not yet been hired.

The youth protection director will oversee child safety training programs and will serve all 27 counties in the diocese, Finn said.

Of the five conditions of the diversion agreement, one plugs a hole in diocesan procedures that became apparent in its handling of the Ratigan case. The agreement requires Finn to use “all reasonable resources” to identify any child whose photograph or video emerges during a child abuse investigation.

Neither Finn nor his top lieutenant, Monsignor Robert Murphy, took any steps to identify children who appeared in lewd photographs found on Ratigan’s computer, according to a report written last summer by former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves. And neither man notified state child abuse workers or the diocese’s Independent Review Board, Graves wrote.

“According to both Msgr. Murphy and Bishop Finn, the IRB was not notified because no identifiable victim was making a complaint,” Graves wrote.

In a joint statement, Finn’s lawyers, Gerald M. Handley and J.R. Hobbs, noted the grand jury’s “hard work” on the case and said that the agreement is a statement that both grand jurors and the prosecutor believe that diversion “is in the best interest of the Clay County community and Bishop Finn.”

“We are satisfied that an agreement was crafted with Prosecuting Attorney Dan White which will aid in the protection of the children of Clay County,” the lawyers wrote.

A Kansas City attorney representing some of Ratigan’s alleged victims said she had mixed feelings about Finn’s diversion agreement.

“I’m enough of an optimist to think that having the bishop meet with the prosecutor could create a sea change in the diocese regarding the protection of children,” said Rebecca Randles. “But I’m enough of a pessimist to understand that this could very likely turn out like 1994, when the prosecutor announced that a deal had been reached with the bishop to provide transparency, and then six years later we were filing lawsuits based on the failure of the diocese to remedy concerns regarding child sexual abuse.”

The agreement prompted harsh criticism from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

“Finn has now done here what bishops have almost always done — make any promises, payment or plea deal to avoid having to face tough questions in open court about their disgraceful and irresponsible deception,” said Peter Isely, a national board member of SNAP. “Catholics, citizens and children need and deserve the truth. The truth surfaces in court. That’s what bishops work overtime to avoid. And that’s what Finn has achieved here — he’s taken the cheap, easy, convenient way out, avoiding real scrutiny and concealing damaging misdeeds.”

Nicholas Cafardi, a law professor at Duquesne University and former chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, said the terms of the agreement “sound like they should work to protect future children from future abuse.”

He added, however, that “a second grand jury coming to the conclusion that there was a basis for indictment but deciding to divert instead doesn’t sound like a vote of confidence in Bishop Finn’s leadership.”

“And for the church to put itself in a position where the only way out of its legal difficulties is to submit to the oversight of governmental authorities, just that is really a tragic day for the church,” he said.

Finn’s monthly meetings with White mirror the kind of reporting requirements that are common to most diversion agreements.

Generally under diversion programs, the defendant must complete a prescribed period of service, study or treatment to avoid prosecution. If the defendant fulfills the terms of the agreement, the authorities drop the criminal charges. In Finn’s case, no charge has been filed in Clay County.

Diversion agreements are not unusual. Authorities in both Clay and Jackson counties have approved more than a thousand diversion agreements for participants in drug court programs. And at times, prosecutors will approve diversion agreements with domestic violence defendants to ensure that they attend counseling programs mandated by the court.

Finn and Murphy, the diocese’s vicar general, spent several hours testifying before the Clay County grand jury on Sept. 27. Murphy also came under fire for the way he handled the Ratigan case.

Until recently, Murphy — who was named vicar general when Finn took over as bishop in 2005 — had handled the diocese’s sex abuse complaints against priests and was on the diocesan review board that assesses allegations against priests and makes recommendations to the bishop.

But in June, the bishop replaced Murphy in his role of handling complaints against priests and removed him from the review board. The action came two weeks after The Star reported that Murphy himself had been accused by a Kansas City man of past sexual improprieties. The diocese has said those claims were unfounded.

Last month, a Jackson County grand jury indicted Finn and the diocese on misdemeanor charges of failure to report child abuse suspicions in a case involving Ratigan. The diocese also has denied wrongdoing.

Finn as a member of the clergy and the diocese as the operator of schools are required under Missouri law to report reasonable suspicions of child abuse. But the indictment alleged that they did not do that for five months in the case of Ratigan.

Other Catholic dioceses around the country also have averted criminal prosecution by striking agreements with authorities, including Manchester, N.H., Phoenix, Cincinnati and Santa Rosa, Calif.

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