The Sept. 6 conviction of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., on one misdemeanor charge of failing to report suspected child abuse will not carry significant penalties for him — he received two years unsupervised probation in a suspended sentence, which means that his record will be expunged if he does not get in any more trouble during that time. 

Bishop Robert Finn
Bishop Finn

But the repercussions for the U.S. Catholic Church, and especially the reputation of the bishops, could reach much further, especially coming on the heels of the three- to six-year sentence received by Msgr. William Lynn of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in July on a more serious charge of child endangerment. 

“I think that this is a bishop is much more symbolic,” said Kathleen Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame. “It’s a much more dramatic instance.” 

It feeds what Bishop Daniel Conlon of the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Protection of Children and Young People, called in August the “shredded” credibility of Catholic bishops on child abuse. 

‘Every reasonable step’

Attorneys representing Bishop Finn and prosecutors agreed to a written set of facts to be considered by Jackson County Circuit Court Judge John Torrence in the bench trial, which lasted about an hour. As part of the agreement, a second count of failure to report suspected child abuse against the bishop was dropped, as were two counts filed against the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese. 

The case concerned Father Shawn Ratigan, who this summer pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges and is awaiting sentencing. A diocesan computer technician trying to fix a problem on Father Ratigan’s laptop computer in December 2010 discovered what appeared to be hundreds of photographs of young girls, focusing on their genital areas. The technician immediately reported the photos to Church officials, but the vicar general, Msgr. Robert Murphy, did not notify police about the number and nature of the photographs for five months. When Msgr. Murphy did so, it was apparently without the prior approval of Bishop Finn. 

In the meantime, Father Ratigan attempted suicide and was hospitalized. When he was released, Bishop Finn assigned him to be chaplain to a convent and to have no contact with children. Father Ratigan disregarded those instructions by celebrating Masses for youth groups, co-celebrating a first Communion Mass and going to dinner at the home of a parish family, where he was discovered trying to photograph a young girl from under a table. 

But the photographs were not the first sign that all was not right with Father Ratigan; the principal of the Catholic school next to his parish wrote Bishop Finn in the spring of 2010 to express concerns about his behavior, including having a little girl sit on his lap on a bus trip and telling children to reach into his pockets for candy. 

The expedited trial kept the children and their families from having to testify and spared Bishop Finn and his diocese a lengthy exposition of the details of the case. 

After he was convicted, Bishop Finn issued a statement: “I regret and am sorry for the hurt that these events have caused. The protection of children is paramount. Sexual abuse of any kind will not be tolerated.” 

The bishop pledged to take “every reasonable step” to protect children from abuse and misconduct committed by clergy, diocesan employees or volunteers. 

He did not address whether he would consider resigning; rather, he led a previously scheduled confirmation class that night. Diocesan spokesman Jack Smith has indicated that the bishop intends to carry out his duties. 

That is a mistake, according to several commentators, including Jesuit Father Thomas Reese and Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer and civil attorney who is a former chairman of the National Review Board, formed to oversee the Church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis in the United States. Both men have said the bishop should resign. 

But others, including William Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, have questioned whether the prosecution of Bishop Finn was politically motivated. While a Facebook page titled “Bishop Finn Must Go” has been created, so have websites that support the bishop. 

Emboldening prosecutors

Cummings, who also serves on the faculty of Notre Dame’s Department of American Studies, said that if anyone asked her how the bishops could help repair their image, she would start by advising Bishop Finn to issue a statement that sounds more contrite than the statement he already made. 

Msgr. Rossetti

“It wouldn’t be possible to go too far,” Cummings told Our Sunday Visitor. 

She added that Bishop Finn’s conviction seems to be part of a pattern of people who might have been thought of as being somehow outside the law being brought down by child sexual abuse scandals — a trend in which she included Joe Paterno and the rest of the football program at Penn State University. 

That could embolden other prosecutors from around the country, who might have hesitated about charging their local bishops in years past, because they didn’t think they could win convictions. 

“A lot of people are watching this closely,” Cummings said. 

Msgr. Stephen Rossetti, a clinical associate professor of pastoral studies at The Catholic University of America, agreed that Bishop Finn’s case, along with what happened at Penn State and the conviction of Msgr. Lynn in Philadelphia, have put the leaders of all kinds of institutions on notice that they will be held accountable for sexual abuse of children that happens within their institutions, but disputed the idea that prosecutors were giving leaders a pass before. 

What’s more, he said, the bishops are taking steps in response to what happened in Philadelphia and Kansas City-St. Joseph, including tightening up the audits of dioceses to make sure that they are in compliance with the charter. 

“They will be looking more closely at how each diocese handled every allegation,” he said. 

This fall, the bishops’ conference will offer webinars for bishops, chancery staff and diocesan review board members who are new in their positions to emphasize the urgency and the primacy of handling sexual abuse complaints and maintaining child protection efforts. 

“We have a whole new generation that might not have been here in 2002,” Msgr. Rossetti said. 

The child protection programs put in place since then “are among the most comprehensive, expansive and expensive in the United States,” he told OSV. 

“The Catholic Church has become perhaps one of the safest places for a child to be.” 

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.