Once relatively anonymous in the Roman Catholic world, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph on Thursday made an unwelcome piece of history for the 2,000-year-old institution.
A judge convicted the diocese’s bishop and spiritual pastor, Robert W. Finn, of failing to report child abuse suspicions, making him the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic cleric convicted in the church’s decades-long child sexual abuse scandal.
Finn, 59, was acquitted of one other misdemeanor count of failing to report. And with Finn’s conviction, Jackson County prosecutors dismissed two similar counts that had been pending against the diocese.
The verdicts came after a short nonjury trial in Jackson County Circuit Court. Judge John Torrence immediately sentenced Finn to two years’ of probation, then suspended the imposition of the sentence. That means that if Finn finishes the probation without incident and completes nine steps as part of his sentence, the bishop’s criminal record will be expunged.
Finn had faced a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine on each charge. The diocese had faced a fine of up to $5,000 on each of its two counts if convicted.
Before hearing his sentence, Finn told the judge, “I truly regret and am sorry for the hurt these events caused.”
He also said, “The protection of children is paramount, and sexual abuse of any kind will not be tolerated.”
Because of the nature of the suspended sentence, Finn cannot appeal his conviction, said J.R. Hobbs, who represented the bishop at the trial.
The charges stemmed from the church’s handling of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, on whose laptop computer a diocesan vendor found hundreds of lewd photos of young girls in December 2010.
Finn’s second-in-command at the diocese, Monsignor Robert Murphy, did not report the photographs to police for five months.
In announcing his verdicts, Torrence said he acquitted Finn of the failure-to-report count that covered Dec. 17, 2010, to Feb. 10, 2011, saying that prosecutors had not met their burden of proof.
He convicted Finn of the count covering Feb. 11 through May 18, 2011. On Feb. 10, 2011, Finn sent Ratigan a letter limiting his exposure to children, computers and cameras. That letter suggested that the bishop clearly was aware of his priest’s threat to children, prosecutors argued.
Finn is the first Catholic bishop in the country, and is thought to be one of only two bishops in the world, convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse. The other case happened in France in 2001, when Bishop Pierre Pican was convicted for failing to report a priest who sexually abused 11 boys between 1989 and 1996.
Finn and the diocese had been scheduled to start a jury trial in less than three weeks, but in a surprising move Wednesday, the matter was reset for trial in front of Torrence.
Lawyers limited the case to a narrow range of facts, which were expressed in 69 paragraphs submitted to Torrence at the hearing.
Torrence listened to about 25 minutes of statements from attorneys, then took a half-hour break before finding Finn guilty of one count based on those facts.
Those facts included an acknowledgement from Finn that he is a mandated child abuse reporter under Missouri law. The stipulation also contained a long recitation of the now-familiar facts of the case with several new insights.
• A June 2010 conversation between Finn and Ratigan, in which the bishop told his priest that “we have to take this seriously,” after a Northland Catholic school principal complained to the chancery that the priest was behaving inappropriately around school children.
• A chancery computer manager’s determination in December 2010 that only four or five of the hundreds of lewd photos found on Ratigan’s laptop had been downloaded from the Internet. The rest appeared to have been taken with a personal camera.
• Ratigan’s denial, while hospitalized for a suicide attempt, that he had sexual contact with children or had any images of children involved in sexual acts on his computer.
• A statement from a Pennsylvania psychiatrist, who found that Ratigan was not a risk to children, which appeared to support the priest’s contention that he was the victim of mistreatment by a school official who complained about his conduct around children.
• A note that Ratigan’s “treatment” with the Pennsylvania therapist in early 2011 consisted entirely of telephone conferences.
• A letter from Ratigan to the bishop in February 2011 in which the priest admitted having a pornography problem. “I am going to give you a brief summary of how I got to where I am with my addiction to pornography,” Ratigan wrote.
• Finn’s acknowledgement in a March 2011 email that Ratigan had issues around children. “I am quite concerned about him attending” a sixth-grade girl’s party, Finn wrote. “I think this is clearly an area of vulnerability for” Ratigan.
• Finn’s statement at a meeting with other priests after Ratigan’s arrest that he had “wanted to save … Ratigan’s priesthood” and had been told that Ratigan’s problem was only pornography.
The stipulation also explained Murphy’s decision to call authorities in May 2011. Murphy complained that he was not receiving direction from the diocese’s lawyers and had misgivings about the diagnosis of “loneliness” from the Pennsylvania psychiatrist. Murphy said he had become “horrified” of the prospect that the photographs were not merely downloads from the Internet but were images of children that Ratigan had abused.
“I thought this is just moving along with no direction, and I thought I have got to do something,” the documents quotes Murphy as saying.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said after Thursday’s trial that Murphy had taken an important, if belated, step to protect children, and acknowledged that her office had agreed not to prosecute him in exchange for his cooperation in this case.
“But for the acts of Monsignor Murphy, we’d never know,” Baker said. “And Father Shawn Ratigan would not be in a federal prison awaiting sentencing.”
Ratigan, 46, pleaded guilty in August in federal court to five counts of producing or attempting to produce child pornography.
Ratigan attempted suicide just after the diocese learned of the troubling pictures on his computer in December 2010. He later was sent for a mental evaluation, after which Finn reassigned him to an Independence mission house and ordered him to stay away from children, computers and cameras. Murphy reported Ratigan to police in May 2011 after he repeatedly violated those orders.
A few days later, state authorities charged Ratigan with possession of child pornography. Federal authorities charged him in August 2011.
A Jackson County grand jury indicted Finn and the diocese in October. Both pleaded not guilty. Finn has maintained that he never saw any images and that he delegated the diocese’s initial response and management to his subordinates.
Finn also could have faced misdemeanor charges in Clay County. But in November he avoided a criminal indictment by agreeing to enter into a diversion program with the Clay County prosecutor. Authorities said they would not prosecute Finn if he lived up to the terms of a five-year diversion agreement.
The agreement required Finn to meet face to face with the prosecutor or his successor each month for 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 was to describe steps the diocese had taken to address the allegations, and he was to visit all nine Clay County parishes to outline new programs to protect children.
Since Ratigan’s case came to light, the diocese has taken several steps to strengthen its efforts to protect children. In June 2011, Finn appointed Jenifer Valenti, a former assistant Jackson County prosecutor, to the position of ombudsman. Her job is to receive and investigate all reports of sexual misconduct or suspicious behavior by clergy, lay employees and volunteers in the diocese.
Torrence said Thursday that, as part of Finn’s probation, he will be required to strengthen training for clergy and administrators on child abuse reporting and recognition of child pornography. The diocese also must establish a $10,000 counseling fund for abuse victims, prepare an approved list of treatment providers and commit to maintaining the ombudsman position.
The bishop also must require the church board that reviews abuse allegations to forward any such reports involving minors to prosecutors and police.
Tom Bath, among several lawyers who represent the diocese, said the probation conditions would bolster the existing program.
“The conditions strengthen our condition as we go on,” Bath said.
Finn and the diocese face four civil lawsuits involving Ratigan and child pornography allegations. The lawsuits allege that Catholic officials had been warned about Ratigan’s troubling behavior and knew of disturbing images on his computer but failed to take immediate action.
Kansas City lawyer Dan Ross, who is not involved in the litigation, said Finn’s conviction certainly could affect the civil lawsuits. A plaintiff’s lawyer could use it as evidence of negligence or to attack Finn’s credibility.
“It’s great leverage for a settlement, as well as direct evidence,” Ross said.
Lawyer Rebecca Randles, who has more than two dozen cases pending against the diocese, cautioned that Finn’s conviction does not guarantee that her actions will be successful.
“We have certain elements that are established today with the failure to report, but there are other elements that are not,” Randles said. “So it’s helpful to the civil cases, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the civil cases win.”