Judge dismisses one civil count against KC diocese, bishop

A federal judge has sharply limited the claims that a young sexual exploitation victim can make against the Kansas City diocese and its bishop.

In an order issued Tuesday morning, U.S. District Judge Gary Fenner dismissed one of two civil counts facing the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and Bishop Robert Finn.

The victim, known in the litigation as Jane Doe 173, will not be able to present evidence that Finn and the diocese aided and abetted the Rev. Shawn Ratigan in his possession of lewd images of her.

Ratigan is awaiting sentencing in federal court after pleading guilty in August to taking pornographic pictures of the girl, who then was about 2 years old, in a Buchanan County church in May 2006.

The civil suit also named Ratigan as a defendant, but he never responded to the action.

The Ratigan scandal roiled the local Catholic church after a computer technician discovered hundreds of lewd photos of young girls on the priest’s laptop. A Jackson County judge later found Finn guilty of failing to notify police or state child welfare authorities, a misdemeanor, about the discovery.

Fenner wrote that federal law restricted aiding and abetting to assistance offered before or during the commission of the crime.

“Defendants’ involvement with the images on the laptop occurred after Ratigan’s alleged crimes regarding the laptop were completed,” Fenner wrote. “Accordingly, defendants cannot be said to have aided and abetted Ratigan’s completed crimes.”

Fenner dismissed any claims based on images of Jane Doe 173 taken from electronic media collected by Ratigan’s brother from the priest’s home after he underwent psychiatric treatment in January 2011. Fenner also ruled that a photo of the girl’s bare bottom did not meet the definition of child pornography.

Finn and the diocese still face a civil count alleging that they received, possessed or distributed pornographic images of Jane Doe 173. Jurors could be asked to determine if three images of the girl were pornographic and whether Finn and the diocese deliberately chose to ignore clear evidence that images found on Ratigan’s laptop constituted child pornography.

Lawyers representing the girl could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for Finn and the diocese referred calls to their attorneys, who did not return calls.

Trial on the case is scheduled to open Monday.

A similar federal case, filed by a plaintiff known as Jane Doe 186, also is before Fenner. However, lawyers representing Jane Doe 186 recently asked that the suit be dismissed “without prejudice,” meaning that it could be refiled later.

Fenner denied that request Monday, saying that before he could approve the dismissal, lawyers representing the girl must produce the written agreement of attorneys representing Finn and the diocese.