UPDATE: Shortly after after this was posted, news broke that Bishop Robert W. Finn will appear in court Thursday, Sept. 6th, for a bench trial. Editor
Thanks to the media, American Catholics
will soon be treated to another sad chapter in the scandal of clergy sex abuse
and coverup. Starting September 24, Bishop Robert W. Finn will be on trial in a
Kansas City, Mo., courtroom for supposedly not moving fast enough to tell the
authorities about a troubled priest.
In case you wonder, it gives me no
pleasure to write about these things. I do so now because I believe it’s better
to be forewarned than to be taken by surprise. In outline, then, the unhappy
tale we’ll soon be hearing told and re-told goes essentially like this.
Although there had been rumbles earlier
about possible trouble involving a Kansas City pastor, Father Shawn Ratigan, it
was only in December, 2010 that Bishop Finn, the local ordinary, learned that
disturbing photographs of young children had been found on the priest’s laptop
his secret discovered, Father Ratigan on December 17 attempted suicide by
shutting himself in the garage with the engine of his motorcycle running.
Bishop Finn sent him out of state
for psychiatric evaluation and, upon his return, assigned him to a sisters’ convent as a kind of
chaplain, with strict orders to stay away from kids.
that warning, the priest was seen at public events involving children. Based on
this new information, Bishop Finn notified the authorities, and the police
arrested him on May 19. Next day, the bishop went to Father Ratigan’s former
parish. There, in a grueling session with parishioners, he said, “I should have
done differently in this regard, and I’m sorry.”
In federal court last month, Father
Ratigan entered a guilty plea to five child pornography counts. As this is written, he’s awaiting
sentencing, with several other lawsuits against him pending.
Because of those five months, December to May,
before reporting the priest, Bishop Finn and the Kansas City diocese are
charged with failure to meet the notification requirements of the law.
Kansas City case is very different from that of Msgr. William Lynn, former
secretary for clergy in the Philadelphia archdiocese, who last July 23 was
sentenced to three to six years in prison on a single count of child
endangerment for his role in giving new parish assignments to abusive priests.
An appeal of the decision is said to be likely. Monsignor Lynn is currently the
highest ranking Church official in the United States to be tried for an
abuse-related offense. As of September 24, Bishop Finn will claim that dubious
what are concerned Catholics to make of all this? Here is a partial,
preliminary, tentative answer.
Ten years ago, responding to a barrage
of disclosures of abuse and coverup, the U.S. bishops overwhelmingly adopted a
policy of what was called zero tolerance for abusive priests. That policy was
subsequently approved by the Holy See. Evidently. Zero tolerance is also the
policy now in place in the American legal systemat least, where the Catholic
clergy are concerned.
the point of view of a non-lawyer, Bishop Finn’s mistake seems to have been
hoping Father Ratigan might be rehabilitated if given a second chance. Under “zero
tolerance,” it appears, Church authorities aren’t allowed to make that mistake.
was a time when the Church handled human problems like Ratigan on its own. That
time passed, largely because, instead of handling problems, religious authorities
sometimes swept them under the rug. But its passing also has human costs, as
the news from Kansas City will soon be reminding us.