The Common Good

What’s Next for the First Catholic Bishop Convicted in Sex Abuse Cover-Up?

Catholic Bishop Robert W. Finn was found guilty Thursday of failing to tell police about a priest suspected of sexually exploiting children, an unprecedented verdict that is being hailed as a landmark in the effort to bring accountability to the church's hierarchy.

RNS photo courtesy Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph
Finn is charged with failing to report suspected child abuse. RNS photo courtesy Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph

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Finn, leader of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and an outspoken conservative in the American hierarchy, was convicted of a single misdemeanor count for not telling police that one of his priests, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, had taken hundreds of lewd images of children in Catholic schools and parishes.

But even as he became the first U.S. bishop ever convicted in criminal court for shielding an abusive priest, Finn’s standing inside the church appears uncertain, and the subject of intense debate.

Should he stay or should he go? Finn has indicated that he wants to tough it out.

“The Bishop looks forward to continuing to perform his duties, including carrying out the important obligations placed on him by the Court,” Finn’s spokesman, Jack Smith, said in a statement to Religion News Service on Friday.

Pope Benedict XVI is the only one with the authority to force a bishop from office, and the Vatican said nothing on Friday about Finn.

Meanwhile, the point man on the abuse crisis for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Ill., was circumspect about Finn’s conviction.

Conlon, who recently acknowledged that the hierarchy’s credibility on abuse was “shredded” in part because of cases like Finn’s, said that he did not know the details of the trial. He instead stressed that the bishops stood by their policy of reporting all allegations to police and complying with all local laws on reporting.

“Church officials have committed themselves to follow the Charter” – the policies on abuse that the bishops adopted in 2002 – “and are bound by civil and canon law,” Conlon said Friday. 

But others directly called on Finn to step down.

“For the good of the diocese and the church, I think he should apologize and resign. Then a new bishop can begin the healing process,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center.

“The judge found him guilty," said Reese, a Jesuit priest. "There is no way he can lead the diocese after that."

Nicholas Cafardi, a canon and civil lawyer at the Duquesne Law School in Pittsburgh, said that Finn could be dismissed under canon law. He also noted that in the past year Benedict removed a bishop suspected of financial improprieties and another who suggested that the church debate the issue of allowing women and married priests.

In an email, Cafardi said that in Finn's case it shouldn’t come to that.

“The best solution for the Church here … is not a canonical process or even Finn's forced removal,” said Cafardi, a former head of the bishops' National Review Board that was established to ensure compliance with their own reforms. “It is that Finn put the good of his diocese above his personal ambitions and his need for power and resign immediately. After this, how can he face his people or his priests?”

Evidence introduced by prosecutors showed that Finn, 59, had also received numerous complaints about Ratigan’s behavior over the course of a year, starting in December 2010, and did not tell authorities even after Ratigan attempted suicide.

Ratigan, 46, pleaded guilty last month to federal child pornography charges and is awaiting sentencing.

Thursday’s verdict by Jackson County, Mo., Circuit Court Judge John Torrence came at the end of a one-day bench trial. Prosecutors wanted to spare victims the pain of testifying, and the diocese wanted to avoid a lengthy trial that could have exposed further embarrassing details about Finn’s record.

Both Finn and the diocese faced two separate misdemeanor counts of failure to report suspected child abuse. Torrence found Finn guilty on one charge, and said there was insufficient evidence to convict on the second. At the request of prosecutors, he then dismissed both counts against the diocese.

Finn could have faced up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine on each charge. Torrence gave Finn a suspended sentence of two years' probation, on condition that he complete the probation period without incident and complies with a series of steps.

Last November, Finn avoided trial on similar charges in another county in the diocese by agreeing to give prosecutors oversight of the diocese's sex abuse reporting procedures in that county.

In the long run, Finn’s viability as a bishop may depend on how local Catholics react.

The case has left many of the faithful in the diocese discouraged and furious, and it is not clear Finn can reverse that negativity.

Finn’s statement after his conviction carefully pointed to inadequate diocesan “process and procedures” as the reason that Ratigan was not reported to police, and his expression of regret was for policy failures and “for the hurt that these events have caused.”

Until this week Finn had vigorously rejected the charges that he had done anything wrong, and had hired a high-priced defense team to make his case. The diocese revealed this week that Finn’s legal bills have cost the diocese and its insurers nearly $1.4 million over the past year, and that parishes will have to kick in more money to cover the outlays. Finn and the diocese still face numerous civil suits resulting from the case.

"How can the diocese move forward after all this?" the Rev. Gerald Waris, a retired priest who was pastor of the church where Ratigan last served, told the Kansas City-based National Catholic Reporter. "Most of us who have worked in parishes and continue to work here, we'll have to find a way to rise above it all.”

The Vatican does not like to be pressured into taking action, especially when it comes to disciplining a bishop. But the pope is also trying to promote accountability as a solution to the sexual abuse crisis and could be waiting to see how things play out.

Observers note that Finn is 59 and does not have to retire until 75. That could provide time for him to restore his reputation, or the prospect of having Finn as bishop for 15 more years could serve as a spur to Catholics to register their anger now.

“Rome is not immune to public pressure,” said Cafardi. “It's now up to the faithful and the clergy of the diocese to come forward.”

David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He writes for Religion News Service and until recently covered the religion beat for AOL's Politics Daily. He blogs at Commonweal magazine, and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI.

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