Sometimes compared to the third rail. It’s also half of the topics you’re not supposed to discuss at the dinner table.
Well, call me a risk-taker. Or foolhardy. Or both.
As I write this I’m equal parts emotions and questions (so many questions!) as I read the news coming out of the Vatican. The articles cited at the bottom of this post help to flesh out the timeline of events.
Yesterday Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn, a man who holds the dubious distinction of being the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic official to be convicted thus far during the span of the church’s prolonged sex abuse scandal.
Bishop Finn has led the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri since 2005. In September 2012 he was convicted of a misdemeanor count for failure to report suspected child abuse by a (now former) priest from his diocese. He received two years probation without fine or jail time for this offense; one other misdemeanor charge against Finn and two against his diocese were dropped.
Finn’s case involved the diocese’s handling of Shawn Ratigan, a priest who pleaded guilty in August 2012 to federal charges of producing and attempting to produce sexually graphic material of minor girls. Ratigan was arrested in May 2011 on the child pornography charges, however, prosecutors contended that Finn and the diocese should have reported him to the police as early as December 2010 when they concede they became aware of “lewd images” on his computer.
During Ritigan’s nonjury trial, facts submitted by prosecuting and defense lawyers (which were agreed to by all parties) include:
- May 2010 – The diocese received a memo from the principal of the school attached to Ratigan’s parish outlining several concerns and noting that the priest’s actions “fit the profile of a child predator.”
- December 16, 2010 – The diocese became aware of lewd photos on Ratigan’s laptop after its examination by a computer technician.
- December 17, 2010 – Ratigan attempted to commit suicide, leaving behind a note saying, “I am sorry for the harm caused to the children.”
- January 2011 – Finn requested a psychiatric evaluation be performed. The results indicated a possibility of false accusations against the priest. Finn then assigned Ratigan to live at a community of religious priests and say daily Mass for a community of women religious.
- February 7, 2011 – Ratigan e-mailed Finn regarding his “addiction to pornography.”
- February 9, 2011 – Finn e-mailed Ratigan a list of strict restrictions, including prohibiting all contact with children.
- March 31, 2011 – Finn learned that Ratigan attended a St. Patrick’s Day parade and a sixth grade girl’s birthday party.
- May 11. 2011 – Msgr. Robert Murphy, the diocese’s vicar general at that time, reported the presence of “hundreds of photographs” of children on Ratigan’s computer to the police.
- May 18, 2011 – Police arrested Ratigan for possession of child pornography.
That’s an enormous amount of information to process. I kind of had to work my way backwards while gathering it, so if I look at things from start to finish:
2010 – Concerns relayed about a parish priest named Father Ratigan. Lewd photos of children found on his computer. Period of time when evaluation is performed and restrictions imposed. Almost five months later the diocese’s vicar reports priest’s pornography to police. Priest is arrested in May 2011.
August 2012 – Priest pleaded guilty to producing and attempting to produce sexually graphic material of minor girls.
September 2012 – Bishop Finn was convicted of a misdemeanor count for failure to report suspected child abuse. He remained in office even after being found guilty.
April 2015 – Pope Francis accepted Bishop Finn’s resignation from office two and a half years after his misdemeanor conviction.
So much of this is overwhelming, distressing, and prompts endless questions.
I have to start with the youth. The damage that priest inflicted on innocent children is immeasurable. We’ll never know the full impact on the lives of those little girls whose privacy was violated. I believe there’s a special place in hell for those who harm children, so I know Ratigan has bigger things to worry about than our criminal system. But this is when the questions start thundering around in my brain.
How can a diocese learn that one of their priests has pictures of naked children on his computer and not report him to the police? How can a religion that teaches Jesus’ love for all the children turn a blind eye when one of their leaders so flagrantly harms them?
How can ANY decent human being, let alone one charged with leading a religious multitude, leave a wolf to roam amongst the sheep?
When it comes to “whys” I hardly know where to begin. Why didn’t the diocese take a closer look at Ratigan’s suicide attempt? Why would Bishop Finn think a list of seven restrictions would do anything to hinder a man possessing obscene pictures of minors, especially one who had admitted an addiction to pornography?
Why on earth would it take FIVE MONTHS to report him to the police? And, assuming it took five months because they wanted to handle it internally, what kind of asinine organization would think they could “handle” a child predator without children getting hurt?
Looking at the bigger picture, why was the bishop allowed to continue leading a diocese for two and a half years after he’d been convicted of a crime? Someone with a criminal record wouldn’t be permitted to teach Sunday school, yet Finn was still running an American diocese.
Who will finally have the strength to stand up authoritatively, insist these horrors end, and offer absolutely no protection to the perpetrators? And how many more children will have to be sacrificed before we find enough warriors to fight for them?
The fact that Finn has left his position is a step forward, but at first I was offended by the language. Learning that the pope had “accepted his resignation” seemed an entirely too accommodating way to remedy the situation, but further research revealed that this is a distinction in terminology used in the Catholic church. (You can read the article here.)
In Catholic theology a bishop is considered the vicar of Christ in his diocese. He is not a vicar of the pope, so authorities are uncomfortable when Catholics talk about the pope firing a bishop. In 2014, though, the Vatican announced new provisions for the removal of bishops (see article linked in paragraph above). They basically state that bishops will be “earnestly requested to offer their resignation from office either at their own initiative or upon the invitation of the competent authority.” (my emphasis) In other words, if necessary the bishop is not “fired” but is talked into resigning.
Pope Frances finally succeeded in pressuring Finn to resign which, granted, is good news. But I struggle with the length of time this kind of process takes. Even though I acknowledge things move at a snail’s pace in the Catholic church, I’m still at a loss when I try to comprehend what strikes me as a lack of common sense. There are so many junctures in this story where the right thing to do seems crystal clear. I simply don’t understand why the church isn’t willing to do it.
So I know I should be glad that Pope Francis is taking steps to make the Catholic church in the United States more accountable.
But I’m enraged by the double standard that protects these predators. I’m broken-hearted for the children who happen to cross their paths. And I feel betrayed by the men who claim to be carrying out the work of God, because the God I believe in would surely put the children first.
You know who else should be furious? The men and women of faith working tirelessly to change people’s lives for the better. These are the people who should rise up and riot in the streets when child predators or thieves co-opt their garb and pose as men of God.
Because these criminals, these men who’ve put themselves above their God or the congregation they’re meant to lead, their actions blanket the entire faith community with scandal and corruption. Their immorality throws doubt on all religious leaders and contributes to a world that grows more broken by the day.
“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you dressed like sheep, but inside they are vicious wolves.” Matthew 7:15
“Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” Ephesians 5:11