Mo. bishop avoids new charges in child abuse case

AP News
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Posted: Nov 15, 2011 5:23 PM
Mo. bishop avoids new charges in child abuse case

A Kansas City Roman Catholic Bishop dodged more misdemeanor charges Tuesday for his handling of a priest accused of taking hundreds of suspected pornographic pictures of children.

Bishop Robert Finn entered into an agreement with the Clay County prosecutor's office that will give the prosecutor authority, for five years, to review how the Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Diocese handles future allegations of child abuse in that county.

The agreement requires the bishop to report directly to the prosecutor monthly to apprise him of any reported abuse activities involving minors throughout the diocese's Clay County facilities. Finn also agreed to visit all Clay County parishes and outline notification programs to protect minors.

Prosecutor Dan White said if Finn fails to meet requirements of the agreement, he could face charges for how he handled claims against the Rev. Shawn Ratigan after suspected child pornography was found on the priest's computer.

"The children of our community must be our first priority," Finn said in a written statement. "Each deserves no more and no less. I stand ready to do all within my power not only to satisfy this agreement, but also to ensure the welfare and safety of all children under our care."

Finn and the diocese were charged last month in Jackson County with failing to report suspected child abuse, a misdemeanor, and both have pleaded not guilty. That Oct. 6 indictment made Finn the highest-ranking U.S. church official charged with shielding an accused priest.

"The diocese and the bishop acknowledge past reporting systems had flaws; injecting an outsider into the mix _ an outsider who can trigger a criminal investigation and file charges _ gives parents and children in our community confidence that if anything were to happen, it will be promptly and effectively addressed," White said in a written statement.

The diversion is not unprecedented. Prosecutors in other states, including New Hampshire and Arizona, have made similar agreements to oversee how dioceses respond to abuse claims. However, in those cases the agreements applied to the entire diocese. The Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese is comprised of 27 counties, and the agreement covers just one.

Terry McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org, which manages a public database of records on clergy abuse cases, said the agreement assumes the bishop and his subordinates can be taken at the word. But he said the Ratigan case showed that's not the case.

David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, also was critical of the agreement, which he said is a means for Finn to avoid taking responsibility for his handling of priest sex abuse of children in his diocese.

"Nothing deters white collar crime like jail time, and nothing exposes a cover-up like a trial. But neither are happening, "Clohessy said. "Finn is doing here what bishops have done for ages, avoiding tough questions in open court and continuing to hide the complicity and corruption of his top staff."

Also Tuesday, White announced a grand jury indicted Ratigan, 46, on three felony counts of possession of child pornography. The indictment, which supersedes a state complaint filed against Ratigan on May 19, claims the priest _ a Clay County resident at the time _ possessed three images of child pornography on a computer May 13.

In June, Ratigan was charged with 13 federal counts of producing, possessing and attempting to produce child porn. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and remains behind bars.

Finn had acknowledged a month earlier that he had known about suspected pornographic images of children on Ratigan's computer since December, when a technician found hundreds of what he called "troubling images" on the priest's laptop. Most of the pictures featured children who were fully clothed, with the focus on their crotch areas. Some were of a 2- to 3-year-old girl with her genitals exposed.

Finn sent Ratigan first to a Pennsylvania psychiatrist who specializes in treating priests with mental issues, then to the Vincentian Mission House in Independence, where the priest was ordered to stay away from children and not have access to a computer.

It was not until after reports started coming in that Ratigan was using Facebook and attending events where children were present that the diocese turned the images over to police.

A diocese-commissioned investigation into the way it handled sexual abuse claims concluded the diocese did not follow its policies for dealing with sex abuse claims.