Scandal and the Vatican: Let’s Not Talk About Kansas City

COMMENTARY

The news that an American bishop had been charged with failing to report child abuse should have been collosal news in the Vatican.

But the response has been as if the case is far away and far removed from the Holy See — and the Papacy that is so quick to come down on questions of celibacy, women priests and the rights of gay Catholics appears to regard the American scandal, involving a priest and what seems to be child pornography, as a matter for local jurisprudence.

On last Friday, prosecutors in Kansas City, Missouri, secured an indictment from a grand jury that alleges Bishop Robert Finn neglected to inform the police for months after discovering “hundreds of disturbing images of children” on a priest’s laptop in December 2010, including photographs focused on the crotch, upskirt pictures and at least one image of a child’s naked vagina.

The offending priest — Shawn Ratigan — was relieved of his position as a church pastor and transferred to a convent, but neither the police, his parishioners, nor the parents of a nearby Catholic school were informed of the pictures until May 2011.

In the interim, Ratigan continued to attend events involving children, including birthday parties and a first communion, and allegedly attempted to take lewd pictures of a 12-year-old girl. Finn and Ratigan have both pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.

The case against Finn marks the first time a bishop in the United States has been indicted for failing to report abuse by a priest under his supervision. It comes nearly 10 years after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted policy mandating that dioceses report allegations of sexual abuse to the public authorities and seven months after the Vatican urged all bishops across the world to institute similar measures.

It also comes three years after a $10 million settlement in Kansas City with 47 plaintiffs alleging abuse at the hands of priests, in which Bishop Finn agreed to immediately inform the police of any suspicion of sexual abuse by members of his diocese. However, when the Vatican was contacted for comment, regarding the allegations, it demurred, citing the pending charges.

“There is a legal procedure under way,” the Vatican’s spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi told a reporter for the AFP. “Any intervention could be interpreted as interference.”

The Vatican’s tepid response highlights a chasm between the public perception of the way the church is organized and the structure by which it usually operates. While most outsiders imagine the Catholic Church as a monolithic hierarchy, with a direct line of command from the Pope down to most junior priest, for many inside its ranks the better analogy is a community, in which the Vatican plays a coordinating role for a host of almost completely independent dioceses.

“The church doesn’t work at all like a centralized machine, in that a command that comes from above is automatically communicated to the parts of the machine below,” says Sandro Magister, editor of the Rome-based website Chiesa (Italian for “church”). “The autonomy of single bishops is very strong.”

Thus, while an outside observer might draw a line of accountability directly to Rome, from the Vatican’s point of view responsibility for a sex abuse scandal would more traditionally lie at the local level. Indeed, in other cases, lawyers for the church have explicitly argued that bishops don’t work directly or the Vatican.

But, under Pope Benedict XVI, the Vatican has nonetheless begun to ratchet up the pressure, according to Phil Lawler, editor of CatholicCulture.org, and a long-time critic of the Church’s slow response to the 25-year-old sex abuse scandal.

“The Vatican is gradually getting a grip on it, if not in this country, in others,” he says.

In Ireland, for instance, the church forced the resignation of three bishops who failed to report abuse by priests.

“I think you’re starting to see steadily more active supervision,” says Lawler, adding that the Vatican would nonetheless likely continue to have a largely hands off approach. “The autonomy of bishops isn’t going to away,” he says. “That’s fundamental to the structure of the church.”

Yet for the victims of the abusive priests, it’s not an argument that has much resonance. After all, when a priest advocates ending the tradition of celibacy or in favor of the ordination of women, the Vatican is quick to clamp down.

“Rome does have a direct influence on diocese around the country and around the world,” says Michael Hunter, the Kansas City director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) who has filed a new lawsuit against Finn for breach of contract, alleging that the bishop failed to live up to the terms of the earlier settlement.

“The Vatican really could and should come down on the moral side of this and really chastise this diocese,” he adds.

“And the heck with the legal issues.”

Complete Article HERE!

Sins of omission just as grievous

COMMENTARY

We all mess up. There are things we shouldn’t do, and do. And there are things we should do, and don’t.

To put it in Christian lingo, there are sins of commission and sins of omission. Or to quote the general Confession from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, “We have left undone those things we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done.”

The U.S. Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas-St. Joseph is reeling from two such high-profile sins.

The pastor of the parish of St. Patrick’s, Rev. Shawn Ratigan, was beloved for his fondness for children and always carried a camera at events at the church and the parish elementary school. In May 2010, the school principal sent a letter to the diocese with concerns that Ratigan’s behaviour fit the profile of a child predator.

The diocese’s vicar general, Monsignor Robert Murphy, spoke to Ratigan about setting boundaries with children but Ratigan continued to attend children’s events, spend weekends with parish families, host an Easter egg hunt and, with his bishop’s consent, preside at a girl’s first communion. He is alleged to have taken lewd photographs during that time.

Last December, a computer technician found hundreds of “disturbing” photos on the priest’s laptop that included nude pictures of girls. He turned the laptop over to the diocese. The next day, Ratigan attempted suicide.

In May of this year, Murphy called the police and the priest was indicted by a federal grand jury. Parents of students and parishioners who had only been told that their priest had fallen sick from carbon monoxide poisoning, were understandably stunned when Ratigan was arrested and charged with three state child pornography counts.

In June he was charged with 13 federal counts of producing, possessing and attempting to produce child pornography. He has pleaded not guilty and remains jailed.

The other side of this sad story, however, is in the “things we should do and don’t” category. The bishop of the diocese, Robert Finn, despite promising three years ago to report suspected pedophiles to police as part of a $10-million US settlement with 47 plaintiffs in sexual abuse cases in Kansas City, has acknowledged that he knew of the priest’s photographs last December but did not turn them over to police until May.

He has been held criminally liable for Ratigan’s behaviour and has become the first U.S. bishop charged for sheltering abusive clergy. If convicted of the misdemeanor, Finn would face a possible fine of up to $1,000 and a jail sentence of up to one year. The diocese faces a possible fine of up to $5,000.

Last Sunday, the bishop urged worshippers to keep the diocese together and avoid discouragement. He has promised to fight the charge. He said in a statement, “We will meet these announcements with a steady resolve and a vigorous defence.”

While Finn admits to knowing about the photographs five months before taking action, he claims that he didn’t read the school principal’s letter dated May 2010 until this past spring.

Finn has the right to a trial by a jury of his peers. He has the right to avoid self-incrimination. He has the right to use every legal advantage the judicial system affords the accused.

It is also important to stress, once again, that clergy abuse is only a small portion of the abuse of children at the hands of coaches, teachers and extended family members.

Nevertheless, victims’ groups see this indictment as a step in the right direction where a bishop is held liable for the behaviour of a priest he supervised because he failed to report the priest to authorities.

Regardless of the legal outcome, given the disappointment and anger rampant in his diocese, Finn should, at the very least, resign.

And he should resign now.

Complete Article HERE!

Catholics troubled by abuse case in KC

A dozen people crammed into a parish hall Wednesday night to earn a certificate in “Protecting God’s Children.”

The two-hour course has been provided by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph for the past decade and was designed to help people detect warning signs of child sex abuse and know how to report inappropriate behavior.

But the obvious subtext of the event — splashed across headlines nationwide this month — remained, for the most part, unspoken. Apart from a passing reference to “the news,” those who participated in the training heard nothing of the indictment this month of their diocese and current bishop, Robert Finn, for failing to report child abuse.

Catholic school teachers attended the training at St. George Parish in Odessa, Mo., along with a maintenance man, women planning to chaperone a bus trip to a youth convention and somebody who occasionally tends a church snack booth.

The course leader cautioned the group that the grainy videos they were about to see would be troubling; anyone could step into the hall if needed. Footage included stories from victims and perpetrators who described how they repeatedly groomed children for years, often near unwitting adults.

“Despite our best efforts, there is one nightmare that no child should have to experience,” former acting bishop of the diocese Raymond Boland said in the videos about child sex abuse. He added that the problem has been hidden for years and the “hesitance to report” is a tragedy that “protects people who shouldn’t be in positions of trust.”

Boland encouraged parents to have “healthy suspicion.”
“You go with your gut,” course leader Katherine Brown told the group. “If something is a little off, something is a little off.”

Kelly Blankenship said she thought about the diocesan turmoil throughout the class. She’d read the 141-page report posted on the diocese website that laid out the case of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan. Ratigan faces state and federal child pornography charges, not to mention civil claims against him and the diocese that allege Ratigan was protected instead of children.

Finn himself has apologized that the diocese was slow to react. But the glaring warning signs seemed to jump right out of the videos in the child safety class.

“It’s almost like a joke,” said Blankenship, 33, a mother of three.
Clergy sex abuse cases have made national headlines for a decade. Church leaders have promised reforms and formed internal review boards. The church has paid about $2 billion in civil claims.

Recent indictments of clergy in Philadelphia and Kansas City signal there is still work to be done, said Terry McKiernan, president of Bishopaccountability.org, an online library of abuse cases.

“If it’s not working in Philadelphia or Kansas City then there is a concern that it’s not working elsewhere, too, because the system is the same everywhere in the U.S.,” he said.

But experts also say the indictments against the Kansas City diocese and high-level authorities like Finn and Monsignor William Lynn of Philadelphia, who was charged in February with child endangerment, ushered in a new phase of housecleaning: The threat of criminal consequences for managers who fail or are slow to report abuse.

“If they don’t learn their lesson this time, I can’t imagine what the next phase would be (other than) the continual eroding in the confidence of clergy,” said Dennis Coday, managing editor at the National Catholic Reporter, an independent publication based in Kansas City.

‘CONTRIBUTE SOMETHING’
Many are baffled by the indictments announced Oct. 14 because in 2008, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph paid $10 million to settle abuse claims with 47 victims. Finn apologized then for the “fully unacceptable behavior” that prompted the lawsuits and assured that new measures were in place “so that we may be confident there will never, ever be a repeat of the behaviors.”

Blankenship and many others are sticking by their faith while hoping future red flags will be handled swiftly and in the open.

“If we can contribute something positive, then our faith can outlive these kinds of tragedies,” she said.

For her that means teaching Sunday school at nearby St. Jude the Apostle Mission in Oak Grove, Mo.

More vocal Catholics say Finn has lost his moral authority and needs to step down. The Facebook page “Bishop Finn Must Go” is gaining hits.
Some of the hostility against Finn predates the latest crisis. Ever since Finn arrived from St. Louis in 2005, he has been trying to navigate the Kansas City diocese away from its progressive roots and toward adherence to traditional church rules.

Meanwhile, others believe Finn, who pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor charges, has been the target of zealous advocacy groups and prosecutors. At worst, a veteran priest said, Finn has fallen prey to his two main qualities — kindness and trust.

“He’s a kind man in the way of taking a person, regardless of their failure or sin, and trying to bring them back to Christ,” said Monsignor William Blacet, 89. “He’s a very trusting soul. Those two things have gotten him in trouble.”

In a letter to the Kansas City Star, Frank Kessler, emeritus professor of government at Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph, asked for the charges to be dropped.

“There are those who want to paint Finn as a poster boy for the clerical abuse scandals,” he said. “That just does not pass the smell test.”

RED FLAGS
A year after Finn’s apology, Ratigan showed up at St. Patrick Parish in North Kansas City and its nearby school and day care. He was bald, wore a leather jacket and drove a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He loved to interact with children, and parents adored him for it.

Ratigan also had a passion for photography and often carried a camera.
But soon parents and teachers started noticing “boundary violations,” according to an investigative report of his case commissioned and publicized by the diocese. His Facebook page had pictures of children sitting on his lap and a photograph of him swimming in a lake with young girl.

On May 19, 2010, Principal Julie Hess wrote a complaint about his behavior and shared it with Vicar General Monsignor Robert Murphy, the bishop’s right-hand man. According to the report, a parent was alarmed to have seen Ratigan rubbing his daughter’s back. His home seemed “tailor made for children,” with stuffed animals, a large fish tank and a kitchen “adorned with towels shaped like doll clothes.” A pair of young girl’s panties was found in a backyard planter.

Hess said she didn’t call the Missouri Division of Family Services hotline because she didn’t suspect abuse.

In December, after Ratigan reported problems with his laptop, a technician discovered “hundreds” of images of young girls on his computer, including pictures of their crotches and at least one image that showed the exposed genitals of a little girl, according to court records.

The computer was turned over to the diocese and the next day Ratigan tried to kill himself in his garage.

Murphy, the vicar general, consulted a police captain on the diocese’s internal review board, but only described one image and didn’t tell him there were many, according to the diocesan report. No other police, parish leaders or parents were notified.

Ratigan recovered and was pulled from St. Patrick to minister at a convent. Finn gave him a set of restrictions, but Ratigan only “grew bolder” by accessing computers and having continued contact with children, according to the report.

Five months after the images were found, Murphy reported Ratigan to police.
Soon after, the diocese hired former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves to investigate. His report concluded that the organization’s abuse policy must “encourage all employees to contact police” and that “the second most serious failing” was Murphy’s and the “apparent acquiescence by Bishop Finn not to report the laptop incident.”

Finn again apologized, promising new reforms that assured any future allegations of abuse would be handled by an ombudsman, currently a former prosecutor.

“From our perspective the apologies are utterly meaningless, because who doesn’t apologize when they are caught red-handed,” said David Clohessy of SNAP, a victim’s advocacy group. “Any sincere apology is accompanied by real change and that isn’t happening in Kansas City.”

But Finn’s latest public apology softened Sally Radmacher. As recently as August she had picketed in front of the downtown Kansas City cathedral over the handling of the Ratigan case.

“Certainly as Catholics we are called to forgive,” she said.
A spokeswoman for the diocese declined to comment and forwarded questions to Gerald Handley, an attorney representing Finn.

“He’s sorry for how he handled it after the fact, after the mismanagement issues — not with respect to his criminal responsibility,” Handley said. “They are two different issues.”

Finn continued last week in his roll as bishop. He celebrated Mass, heard confessions and stopped by a fundraiser. He and other priests in the diocese attended a retreat at Lake of the Ozarks.

STILL UNSETTLED
Fifteen members of Ratigan’s former flock gathered for Mass last week in a small chapel at St. Patrick.

Janet Morris, a lay minister, led the service. She told the group: “Our goal is peace in our hearts, and yet we are very far from that.” She asked them to pray for their leaders who are “striving to bring gospel values into our daily lives.”

But after the service she and others described how they are still unsettled by Ratigan’s case.

“To me it’s like a kid trying to blame someone else,” she said. “Anybody should know to call the police.”

Next door, Julie Hess, the principal who initially reported Ratigan in May 2010, said in an interview that she initially thought he didn’t know the boundaries for working with children.

She said she offered Ratigan a binder of training materials but he declined, saying he was aware of the rules. She stands by how she handled it without knowing about the photographs.

“You don’t call the police to say this guy is creepy,” she said. “We had no reason to suspect abuse.”

Hess and others at St. Patrick are ready for the emotions surrounding the case to clear. Not that it will be forgotten. It’s embarrassing.
Just outside the school office last week, Maia Hamilton, 33, lugged a child seat as a child tugged on her other arm, wanting to be held. Hamilton said she “felt like a fool” when Ratigan’s case became public.

The mother of four said she was blindsided because Ratigan was personable and she liked him.
“You just don’t know what to look for anymore,” she said.

Complete Article HERE!

Accountability in Missouri

COMMENTARY

It has been seven years since the Roman Catholic Church’s investigative board of laity warned that, beyond the 700 priests dismissed for sexually abusing children, “there must be consequences” for the diocesan leaders who recycled criminal priests through unsuspecting parishes. American church authorities have done nothing to heed this caution.

Bishop Finn, who professed his innocence under the indictment, had previously outraged church faithful by acknowledging that he knew of the photos last December but did not turn them over to the police until May.

This occurred despite the requirements of state law — and the bishop’s own policy vows — that suspected crimes against children be immediately reported. The priest, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, continued to attend church events and allegedly abuse children until he was indicted this year on 13 counts of child pornography.

Bishop Finn is only the first ranking prelate in the nationwide scandal to be held criminally liable for the serial misbehavior of a priest in his diocese. Investigations have shown that many more diocesan officials across the country worked assiduously to bury the scandal from public view over the years, despite continuing damage inflicted on thousands of innocent youngsters.

In 2004, the nation’s bishops promised unqualified cooperation with law enforcement. They instituted zero-tolerance reforms for priests but failed to create a credible process for bringing bishops to account. Missouri officials deserve credit for puncturing the myth that church law and a bishop’s authority can somehow take precedence over criminal law — and the safety of children.

Complete Article HERE!