Indicted bishop plans to continue leading diocese

AP News
Posted: Oct 19, 2011 4:27 PM
Indicted bishop plans to continue leading diocese

Calls for Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Finn to resign started even before last week, when he became the highest-ranking church leader in the sex abuse scandal criminally charged with sheltering an accused priest.

The bishop of Kansas City, Mo., had acknowledged in May that he waited five months to tell police about the hundreds of images of alleged child pornography found on the Rev. Shawn Ratigan's computer. Ratigan had taken some of the photos of girls months ago at an Easter party he hosted, investigators said. More than 700 people have joined a Facebook page called "Bishop Finn Must Go."

However, no such demands have come from within the church hierarchy. Finn, who has pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failure to report suspected child abuse, is expected to stay on.

Finn has "a full schedule of pastoral activities," his spokeswoman Rebecca Summers said. "That will continue and he has no plans to change it."

In the 25 years since the clergy abuse problem became public, only one American bishop _ Cardinal Bernard Law, former archbishop of Boston _ has resigned over keeping guilty clerics in church jobs without notifying parents or police. Law had to ask Pope John Paul II twice before receiving permission to step down.

Grand juries in several regions investigated how bishops handled claims against priests. However, most of the cases were decades old and far beyond the statute of limitations. Some bishops, including those in New Hampshire and Phoenix, negotiated deals with local authorities to avoid prosecution of their dioceses.

The case closest to Finn's was that of Bishop Daniel Walsh, formerly of the Diocese of Santa Rosa, Calif.

Walsh continued to lead the diocese for about five years after he was threatened with criminal charges in 2006 for waiting five days after a priest admitted wrongdoing to report him. The priest fled to Mexico before he could be arrested. Walsh agreed to participate in a four-month counseling program and was not charged with violating state law requiring clergy to immediately report suspicion of child abuse. Walsh stepped down as Santa Rosa bishop earlier this year, one year ahead of the mandatory age, 75, at which bishops must submit their resignations to the pope.

In Finn's case, the Holy See is not expected to intervene. The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said he would not discuss the situation "because there's a civil process under way." Al Notzen, chairman of the National Review Board, a lay panel formed by bishops to help monitor child safety, said the board doesn't comment on individual cases. No other American prelates have remarked publicly on the Kansas City case.

In Catholic theology, a bishop is considered married to his diocese, so forcing a bishop to step down is seen as extreme, according to Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in New Jersey. That idea is underscored in church legislation, which directs bishops to reside in their dioceses, in response to the years before the Reformation, when bishops were often absent from the several dioceses they oversaw.

"It's not hard and fast theology, and it's not hard and fast practice, but this is how it happens 80 percent of the time," Bellitto said.

Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, called demands for Finn's resignation "terribly distasteful" and ignored the bishop's efforts to address the problem. Finn apologized repeatedly for the lapse, hired a former U.S. attorney to investigate how it happened and recruited another former prosecutor as ombudsman in charge of investigating abuse claims.

"There's a lot of accumulated frustration and anger and disgust and it's all being unloaded at the moment on this one bishop who made some terrible mistakes he admitted and has apologized for many times over," said Shaw, who writes for Our Sunday Visitor and other Catholic media. Frank Kessler, who teaches at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., argued in an op-ed on Wednesday in The Kansas City Star, that the indictment was unfair and should be dropped.

Parishioners are hurt and angry over the impact on their diocese and wonder how local churches can continue to be a moral voice in their communities with a spiritual leader under indictment. The diocese has already delayed a capital campaign while the Ratigan case continues. The priest was charged in May with three state child pornography counts, and in June with 13 federal counts of producing, possessing and attempting to produce child porn. He has pleaded not guilty and remains jailed.

Patty Rotert, a Kansas City Catholic who has sons ages 4 and 3, had spent months encouraging friends to write to prosecutors and urge them to investigate the diocese. In May 2010, the principal of a Catholic school where Ratigan worked submitted a five-page memo to the diocese outlining concerns about the priest's behavior around children. Finn said he had been told about the report, but hadn't read it until a year later.

Rotert said she still plans to send her sons to Catholic schools and continues to donate to and volunteer with her parish, but believes Finn should leave.

"I think he should step down so our diocese can heal, so our diocese can stop talking about this," Rotert said. "I don't think he'll be able to effectively lead."

At morning Mass on Wednesday at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Redemptorist Catholic Church in Kansas City, Mo., Tom Arnold, 60, said "your heart goes out" to abuse victims. However, he said he was reserving judgment until more information is available about the charge against the bishop. Finn faces a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted of the misdemeanor. The diocese also faces a $1,000 fine.

"I look at it from the spiritual realm because if you wanted for people to lose their faith, this would be the ideal way of doing it," Arnold said, "This undermines the authority of the church. People say, `Well if these people are doing this and this is what the church is all about, well I don't want anything to do with it.' And that's not what the church is all about."


Hollingsworth reported from Kansas City. Zoll, AP religion writer, reported from New York. AP writers Nicole Winfield and Bill Draper contributed.