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Charge against Catholic bishop unprecedented in sex abuse scandal

Prosecutors go after the church hierarchy by charging Robert Finn of the Kansas City, Mo., diocese with failure to report evidence of child abuse. Might others now follow suit?

October 14, 2011|By Mitchell Landsberg, Los Angeles Times
  • Kansas City, Mo., Bishop Robert Finn has been charged with failing to report evidence of child abuse to police.
Kansas City, Mo., Bishop Robert Finn has been charged with failing to report… (Jim Barcus, Kansas City…)

In charging the bishop of Kansas City with failure to report child abuse, prosecutors in Missouri have done something unprecedented in the long, troubling saga of the sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church: hold a member of the church hierarchy criminally accountable for the alleged crimes of a priest.

What remains to be seen is whether the indictment of Bishop Robert Finn will be an isolated event or will encourage prosecutors elsewhere to investigate allegations of coverup against members of the church leadership.

Prosecutors announced Friday that Finn had been charged with a single misdemeanor count of failure to report child abuse after he allegedly learned — but failed to tell authorities — that a priest in his diocese had a laptop computer containing hundreds of images of child pornography. Finn's diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph was also charged.

"I can assure you that this has nothing — nothing — to do with the Catholic faith," Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said in announcing the indictments. "This is about the facts of this case, and this is about protecting children."

For years, victims rights groups have complained that the criminal lines of accountability in the scandal never climbed above the level of priests accused of sexually abusing children, despite evidence that bishops and archbishops knew about many of the alleged crimes and failed to call police. Prosecutors in Los Angeles spent years investigating Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former leader of the L.A. archdiocese, and other top officials before concluding last year that they lacked sufficient evidence to bring charges.

David Clohessy, a spokesman for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, called the Finn indictment very significant. "It is the first time that any member of the U.S. church hierarchy has faced the possibility of jail time," he said.

Clohessy said the indictment sent "two clear signals: One is that the church hierarchy continues to act carelessly and recklessly in terms of ensuring children's safety, and the second is that at least some in law enforcement are finally willing to vigorously pursue both the predators and their enablers."

The case against Finn stems from allegations involving Father Shawn Ratigan, who was arrested on child pornography charges earlier this year. The priest pleaded not guilty.

According to the indictment, Finn discovered sometime between last December and May that Ratigan's laptop contained "hundreds of photographs of children … including a child's naked vagina, up-skirt images and images focused on the crotch."

Finn has acknowledged that he and other diocesan officials knew about the photos for five months but did not tell police.

The diocese issued a statement Friday saying that Finn had pleaded not guilty. "Bishop Finn denies any criminal wrongdoing and has cooperated at all stages with law enforcement," the statement quoted Finn's lawyer, Gerald Handley, as saying. The diocese described steps Finn had taken to strengthen protections of children.

The indictments, however, raised questions about the effectiveness of national standards put in place in 2002 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"I think the average person on the street … would say, 'What's up with this? I thought they had this taken care of,'" said Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and the author of several books on the sexual abuse crisis. "I think that could be extremely discouraging for rank-and-file Catholics and could anger people when they see it doesn't seem to be as airtight as they would have hoped by now."

Plante insisted, however, that the church had made significant progress toward protecting children, despite the Kansas City case and recent grand jury reports that accused the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia of keeping dozens of abusive priests in ministry.

"The remodel has gone pretty well in the past 10 years," Plante said. "When you look at how many kids are being victimized today compared to the past, it's a totally different story."

Clohessy, of SNAP, said he hoped the Finn indictment would embolden prosecutors elsewhere to bring charges against the church hierarchy as warranted. However, he said the case in Kansas City might stand alone.

"I think what makes Kansas City different than coverup cases elsewhere is that the wrongdoing is so well-documented and so egregious, and actually had led to real harm to real kids," he said. "In other words, there are little girls in Kansas City whose naked images have been taken by a priest months after suspicions about him should have been reported to the police. This is not a case where theoretically kids might have been harmed."

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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