By Carey Gillam
(Reuters) - A Catholic bishop in Kansas City must stand trial on charges that he failed to report a priest found with pornographic pictures of young girls on his church computer to police, a judge said on Thursday.
Bishop Robert Finn, head of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, faces one misdemeanor charge that he failed to tell authorities that church officials had found disturbing pictures of unclothed little girls that appeared to have been taken by a popular local priest, Father Shawn Ratigan.
His trial is set to start September 24.
Finn's lawyers had asked that the case against him be dismissed and argued in a hearing last week that Missouri statutes requiring clergy, school teachers and others to report suspected child sexual abuse were "vague."
They also argued that even if the bishop suspected abuse he had no duty to report the situation to authorities because he was not the "designated reporter" within the diocese and could rely on someone else within the diocese to notify authorities.
But Jackson County Circuit Judge John Torrence rejected those arguments, ruling Thursday that the case would go forward.
"The court finds that the evidence in this case is sufficient to allow a jury to conclude that Bishop Finn was a designated reporter as defined by Missouri law," the judge wrote.
"While we are disappointed in the pre-trial rulings, we will continue to strive towards a fair resolution of the issues," said J.R. Hobbs, an attorney for Finn.
Finn is the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic leader to face criminal charges in connection with alleged child sexual abuse by a priest. The church for the last several decades has been confronted with allegations of wide-spread abuse of children by priests and has repeatedly been accused of covering up the acts.
But criminal prosecution of those accused of engaging in the cover-ups is rare.
The case against Finn comes as another high-profile trial against senior Catholic clergy is under way in Philadelphia.
There, Monsignor William Lynn, former secretary of the clergy for the Philadelphia Archdiocese, is charged with child endangerment and conspiracy over accusations that he covered up abuse allegations against priests, many of whom were simply transferred to unsuspecting parishes.
The Lynn trial is expected to continue for several more weeks.
In Finn's case, church officials discovered the photos on Ratigan's computer in December 2010 and spent months analyzing whether or not they should turn him in.
When church officials initially confronted Ratigan, he tried to kill himself. But he survived and was ultimately sent by Bishop Finn for psychological assessment and ordered to stay away from children.
Police were not notified until another church official called them in May 2011. Ratigan is now in jail awaiting trial on 13 counts of child pornography.
Victims' parents allege he continued to take pornographic pictures of young girls connected to the diocese until shortly before his arrest, and many blame Bishop Finn for not notifying parents and the police.
Both Finn and the diocese were indicted by a grand jury in Jackson County in October for failing to report Ratigan. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Diocese spokeswoman Rebecca Summers declined to comment about the judge's ruling Thursday, citing "deference to the solemnity of Holy Week."
(This version of the story corrects the first name of priest from Patrick to Shawn in second paragraph)
(Reporting by Carey Gillam; editing by Todd Eastham and Bill Trott)