Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn convicted in child sex abuse scandal

09/06/2012 4:56 PM

09/06/2012 5:14 PM

Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn today became the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic official convicted during the church’s decades-long child sexual abuse scandal.

Following a short non-jury trial, Jackson County Circuit Court Judge John Torrence convicted Finn of one misdemeanor count of failing to report suspicions of child abuse but acquitted him on another count of failing to report.

Torrence sentenced Finn to two years of probation then suspended the sentence, meaning that if Finn completes the unsupervised probation without any new incidents happening, his criminal record will be expunged.

Finn had faced a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine on each charge. Prosecutors asked for two years of probation. Defense attorneys sought a suspended sentence.

Before being sentenced, Finn told the judge, “I truly regret and am sorry for the hurt these events caused.”

He also said, “The protection of children is paramount and sexual abuse of any kind will not be tolerated.”

Though the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph also was to be tried Thursday on the same two counts, Torrence severed the cases shortly after the proceedings opened.

After Finn’s conviction, prosecutors dropped the charges against the diocese, which had faced a fine of up to $5,000 on each charge if convicted.

The charges stemmed from the church’s handling of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, on whose laptop a diocesan vendor found hundreds of lewd photos of young girls in December 2010.

Finn’s second-in-command at the diocese, Monsignor Robert Murphy, did not report the photographs to police for five months.

The verdict means that Finn had reasonable suspicions that Ratigan had abused children but failed to notify authorities. Finn is the first bishop in the country, and is believed to be one of only two bishops in the world, convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse. The other case happened in France.

Finn and the diocese had been scheduled to start a jury trial in less than three weeks, but in a surprising move Wednesday, the matter was reset for trial in front of Torrence.

Lawyers limited the case to a narrow range of facts, which were expressed in 69 paragraphs submitted to Torrence at the hearing.

Torrence listened to about 25 minutes of summary from attorneys then took a half-hour break before finding Finn guilty of one count based on those facts.

Those facts included an acknowledgement from Finn that he is a mandated child abuse reporter under Missouri law.

The stipulation also contained a long recitation of the now-familiar facts of the case with a few new insights. Those included:

A June 2010 conversation between Finn and Ratigan, in which the bishop told his priest that “we have to take this seriously,” after a Northland Catholic school principal complained to the chancery that the priest was behaving inappropriately around school children.

A chancery computer manager’s determination in December 2010 that only four or five of the hundreds of lewd photos found on Ratigan’s laptop had been downloaded from the Internet. The rest appeared to have been taken with a personal camera.

Ratigan’s denial, while hospitalized for a suicide attempt, that he ever had sexual contact with children.

A statement from a Pennsylvania mental health professional, who found that Ratigan was not a risk to children, which appeared to support the priest’s contention that he was the victim of mistreatment by a school official who complained about his conduct around children.

A note that Ratigan’s “treatment” with the Pennsylvania therapists after he returned to Kansas City in early 2011 consisted entirely of telephone conferences.

A letter from Ratigan to the bishop in February 2011 in which the priest admitted having a pornography issue. “I am going to give you a brief summary of how I got to where I am with my addiction to pornography,” Ratigan wrote.

Finn’s acknowledgement in a March 2011 email that Ratigan had issues around children. “I am quite concerned about him attending the (sixth) grade girl’s party,” Finn wrote. “I think this is clearly an area of vulnerability for Father Shawn.”

Finn’s statement to a meeting with other priests after Ratigan’s arrest that he had “wanted to save (Father Shawn’s) priesthood” and had been told that Ratigan’s problem was “only pornography.”

The change in the trial procedure avoided what was expected to be a two-week jury trial, allowed prosecutors to shield vulnerable witnesses and their families from public scrutiny and eliminated the need for finding an unbiased jury in a case with two high-profile defendants.

Ratigan attempted suicide just after the diocese learned of the troubling pictures on his computer in December 2010. He was hospitalized and sent for a mental evaluation, after which Finn reassigned him to an Independence mission house and ordered him to stay away from children, computers and cameras. The diocese reported Ratigan to police in May 2011 after he repeatedly violated those orders.

A few days later, state authorities charged him with possession of child pornography. Federal authorities charged him in August 2011.

Ratigan, 46, awaits sentencing after pleading guilty in federal court to five counts of producing or attempting to produce child pornography. He still faces pornography charges in Clay County.

After Ratigan’s arrest, it was revealed that diocesan officials had been warned more than a year earlier about his disturbing interactions with children but took no action. Finn came under extreme criticism for failing to respond to the warnings, and irate Catholics began calling for his ouster. A Facebook page called “Bishop Finn Must Go” attracted hundreds of supporters, many calling for the bishop’s resignation and urging prosecutors to investigate.

Finn’s advocates, however, stood by him, saying the bishop’s critics were trying to exploit his handling of the Ratigan case to advance their agenda.

A Jackson County grand jury indicted Finn and the diocese in October. Both pleaded not guilty. Finn has maintained that he never saw the images and that he delegated the diocese’s initial response and management to his subordinates.

Finn also faced misdemeanor charges in Clay County. But in November, he avoided a possible criminal indictment by agreeing to enter into a diversion program with the Clay County prosecutor. Authorities said they would not prosecute Finn if he lived up to the terms of a five-year diversion agreement.

The agreement required Finn to meet face-to-face with the prosecutor or his successor each month for five years to discuss any allegations of child sex abuse levied against clergy or diocesan staff within the diocese’s Clay County facilities. Finn also was to describe steps the diocese had taken to address the allegations, and he was to visit all nine Clay County parishes to outline new programs to protect children.

Since Ratigan’s case came to light, the diocese has taken several steps to strengthen its efforts to protect children. In June 2011, Finn appointed Jenifer Valenti, a former assistant Jackson County prosecutor, to the position of ombudsman. Her job is to receive and investigate all reports of sexual misconduct or suspicious behavior by clergy, lay employees and volunteers in the diocese.

A report released last month by the diocese said that in her first year on the job, Valenti handled 79 reports of sexual abuse or inappropriate or suspicious behavior, but nearly half involved people outside the diocese. The complaints involved 72 people, including 20 clergy, 17 lay employees, 11 family members, seven volunteers, five members of religious orders and 12 who were unknown.

Finn, a St. Louis native, was ordained a priest in 1979. He served as a parish priest, high school teacher and principal in the Archdiocese of St. Louis and was editor of the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan newspaper, for four years. In 2004, Finn was named by Pope John Paul II as Coadjutor Bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. He became the diocese’s sixth bishop when Bishop Raymond J. Boland retired in May 2005.

The child sex abuse scandal dogged Finn almost from the beginning of his tenure as bishop. In 2008, the diocese settled a lawsuit for $10 million that involved 47 plaintiffs and 12 accused priests. Since Ratigan’s arrest, about two dozen additional lawsuits have been filed against numerous priests. Many of those suits name Finn and the diocese as defendants.

Finn and the diocese face four civil lawsuits — two in federal court and two in state court — involving Ratigan and child pornography allegations. The lawsuits allege that Catholic officials had been warned about Ratigan’s troubling behavior and knew of disturbing images on his computer but failed to take immediate action.

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