The charge is only a misdemeanor, but if prosecutors are able to win a conviction against Kansas City Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Finn, they could be opening up a whole new front in the national priest abuse crisis.
Finn is accused of violating Missouri's mandatory reporter law by failing to tell state officials about hundreds of images of suspected child pornography found on the computer of a priest in his diocese.
Experts say a criminal conviction against Finn, the highest-ranking church official charged with shielding an abusive priest, could embolden prosecutors elsewhere to more aggressively pursue members of the church hierarchy who try to protect offending clergy.
"Cases can sit like land mines in files for a long time and suddenly come to light," said Matthew Bunson, a senior fellow at the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and co-author of a book, "Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal." "Those cases may ultimately involve leaders in the church."
Finn and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph each were charged last year with one count of failing to report. The case involves the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, who remains jailed on state and federal charges accusing him of producing and possessing child pornography. Both have pleaded not guilty, and a judge is scheduled to hear multiple motions in the case Tuesday, including one to dismiss the charges.
"We do not believe that either the facts or the law support a finding of guilt on the misdemeanor charges, and we look forward to a just and fair resolution of them," the diocese told The Associated Press in an e-mailed statement.
Finn has acknowledged being told in December 2010 about hundreds of photographs of young children found on Ratigan's laptop computer. Many of the photos focused on the crotch areas of young children who are clothed, though one series showed the exposed genitals of a girl thought to be 3 or 4 years old.
The bishop also has acknowledged that a parish principal warned the diocese of suspicious behavior by Ratigan, including that he was taking compromising pictures of children and let them sit on his lap and reach into his pocket for candy. Those warnings occured more than six months before the photos were found.
Instead of ordering the photos to be turned over to police, or telling the Missouri Children's Division about them, Finn sent Ratigan out of state for a psychiatric evaluation. When Ratigan returned to Missouri, Finn sent him to the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist, where he would say Mass for the sisters and be away from children.
Only after the church received reports that Ratigan had violated orders from the diocese to stay away from children did the diocese turn over to police last May a disk containing the photos from Ratigan's computer.
"From the church's perspective, having your bishop declared a criminal is a big deal, even if it's only a misdemeanor," said Douglas Laycock, a religious liberty specialist at the University of Virginia School of Law. "For them, it's not about the fine, it's about the statement being made."
The maximum sentence for the crime is a $1,000 fine and one year in jail, but there's little chance the bishop would be put behind bars. Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said some people thought she shouldn't have filed the charge against Finn, while others thought the charge should have been more serious.
"The prosecutor is not in the business of pleasing people," she said.
Finn told a grand jury he thought Vicar General Robert Murphy was the diocese's designated reporter. Murphy testified that even though he was head of a team formed to respond to claims of child sex abuse by priests, he had never been trained on being the mandatory reporter, nor officially assigned that duty.
Separation of church and state also is a significant issue for the church, Laycock said.
"Say a bishop has to report to police everything he knows about a priest under his supervision," Laycock said. "If child abuse is involved, it may be a sensible and constitutional law. But it certainly intrudes on the supervisory relationship of a bishop and priest."
Tuesday's motions hearing comes a day after the trial begins in Philadelphia in a case involving Monsignor William Lynn, the first U.S. church official charged with child endangerment for keeping accused priests in the ministry.
Terry McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org, which manages a public database of records on clergy abuse cases, said the two cases represent a shift toward holding the Catholic Church hierarchy legally accountable for failing to warn parents or police about abusive priests.
"There's been a lot of attention directed against the Ratigans of the world, but not a lot of attention until recently on the Finns of the world," McKiernan said. "That's what makes the church very nervous. It will be devastating for the church if the attention is directed at people like that."