Saving Whose Face? Systematic CYA By The Catholic Diocese

Somebody screwed up.  Somebody screwed up bad.

That’s all I could think back in May 2011 when I read the details of a Kansas City priest’s arrest.  Father Shawn Ratigan was behind bars on suspicion of producing child pornography and, it seemed, the local diocese knew of his habits for several months before turning him over to police.

I’ve resisted writing about this case for more than a year now because I knew I’d likely cover the criminal case against Mr. Ratigan (he’s no longer Father Ratigan).  I didn’t feel it was appropriate to comment on the case until a verdict came down for both his criminal charges and the historic charges against Bishop Robert Finn and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Bishop Robert Finn became the first U.S. bishop convicted of protecting an abusive priest. (Photo taken by pool still photographer)

With the latter case ending last week in a flurry of masterful tactics that kept all but two clergymen out of hot water, here is my experience with the story.

This wasn’t just a case of child sexual abuse.  This wasn’t just a cover-up.

This was a case of blind faith and those willing to take advantage…again.

THE FIRST DAY

Neither of us really wanted the story.  As our 10:00 producer walked over to our desks and explained a priest was in jail on some kind of child sex abuse case, Dan Weinbaum and I looked at each other and cringed.

Former Catholic priest Shawn Ratigan in court.

Simply put, those stories are no fun for reporters.  There are several reasons for this besides the disturbing content of the story.  No one is willing to talk, there are no appropriate visuals for a broadcast story, and people entirely disconnected from the story except for their membership in a particular parish stare daggers at you as though you’re the actual predator.

Dan had recently taken on another less-than-desirable story assignment (we sometimes call it “jumping on the grenade”), so I grabbed the charging documents and started reading.

Somebody screwed up.

The accusations made in the affidavit amazed me.  If proven true, it looked like at least a half dozen diocese officials would have to plead to colorblindness but for all the red flags waved in their faces.

The very first sentence bothered me.

“On May 13, 2011, the Kansas City Missouri Police Department was notified that on December 16, 2010, a priest at a local church had been having problems with his personal laptop computer.”

Five months?  Five MONTHS it took to call police?  Somebody screwed up.

The charges said a diocese IT employee had found disturbing images of young girls’ crotches on Father Shawn Ratigan’s computer which appeared to be photographs taken by the priest, Ratigan attempted suicide the next day, and the diocese moved the priest away from his post at St. Patrick’s Parish in the Northland.  In the meantime, the diocese made copies of all the disturbing images, gave Ratigan’s laptop to his family members, and said family members destroyed the computer.  The call to police only came after the diocese determined Ratigan still wasn’t staying away from children as ordered.

When I called the diocese and got little response, a photojournalist and I drove downtown where I sat in the diocese lobby until a spokeswoman came out to talk.

I asked Becky Summers why it took five months for the diocese to report Ratigan to police.

“You’ll have to ask them,” Summers said.  “We’ve been in contact with law enforcement from the beginning.”

It was just the first in an embarrassing series of gaffes by diocese leadership as police and prosecutors both strongly denied they’d had any contact about Ratigan until recently.  The diocese retracted Summers’ statement hours later and then explained they’d consulted with a KCPD captain who was part of the diocese’s independent review board.

It would later be revealed that from December 16 to April 8, Summers and other officials within the diocese warned either Bishop Finn or his right-hand man Monsignor Robert Murphy to call police or “do something” no fewer than three times.

Somebody screwed up bad.

THE CRIMINAL CASE

By this, I don’t mean the criminal case against Ratigan.

With so much time elapsing before contacting police and so much activity in that timespan, I thought surely there would be more fallout here.

If the prosecutors deemed the images found on Ratigan’s computer child pornography, then weren’t the diocese’s actions technically possession and distribution of it?  Like teachers, aren’t clergy mandated to report suspicions of child abuse?

As I called around to people connected to the case around July and tried to find out if the diocese was in trouble, I finally asked a source within KCPD if I was barking up the wrong tree.

“No,” he said.  “You found the tree.”

Micheal Mahoney, a reporter with decades more experience and infinitely better sources than me, broke the story a couple of months later that Bishop Finn would be summoned to testify in front of a Jackson County grand jury.

The grand jury indicted Finn and the diocese on October 14 on two misdemeanor counts of a mandated reporter failing to report child abuse suspicions.

Finn became the highest-ranking Catholic official in the U.S. (and just the second bishop in the world) charged with protecting an abusive priest.

THE TRIAL

“Hopefully, there won’t be a fire.”

Jackson County Circuit Court Judge John Torrence openly acknowledged his overflowing courtroom.  As I watched from the far corner, the crowd of reporters and spectators just kept coming in despite a lack of seating or even standing room.  People simply spilled out into open space instead of lining the already-full walls, much to the dismay of people who arrived early enough to get a seat.

With this being a surprise bench trial, all facts of the case had been agreed upon by the prosecution and defense.  I’d later find out why.

Before the trial officially started, defense attorneys filed a motion to “sever parties,” meaning only Bishop Finn was on trial for that day.  I’d later find out why.

Both sides presented approximately 10-minute statements, and I noticed something odd about defense attorney J.R. Hobbs’ argument.  I wrote in my notes, “Looks like defense knows judge will hand down guilty verdict.”  I’d later find out why.

After a half hour court recess, Judge Torrence returned to announce his guilty verdict against Bishop Finn for one of the two misdemeanors.

The bishop stood and told the courtroom, “I truly regret and am sorry for the hurt that these events have caused.”

Bishop Finn reading from a written apology in court. (Photo taken by pool still photographer)

Prosecutors then informed the court they planned to drop the charges against the diocese.

While I’d recognized the signs, I certainly didn’t process the defense strategy as it was happening.  It’s difficult not to appreciate its brilliance in the end.

THE STRATEGY

“Why did you make the deal to drop the charges against the diocese?”

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker looked at me, acknowledged it was a good question, and explained “there’s give and there’s take” in a complicated case like this one.  She insisted the guilty verdict came down on the party most responsible.

In one stroke, Peters Baker landed an historic conviction and let the other defendant go.

Prosecutors speaking with reporters following Bishop Finn’s trial. While Jean Peters Baker hailed the conviction as a victory, she spent much of this press conference answering questions on the nature of the deal she made with the diocese.

Both sides wanted something.

Prosecutors wanted the conviction and to keep child victims off the witness stand.  Defense attorneys wanted a quick trial with limited media coverage and the diocese’s hands clean in the end (a diocese conviction would’ve been devastating in light of pending civil lawsuits).

By dropping their rights to a trial by jury and agreeing to facts that would surely convict the bishop, defense attorneys made a deal with prosecutors to drop charges against the diocese when a verdict came down.

With Finn safely under the bus, the diocese had no criminal convictions as they moved on to fighting civil lawsuits worth tens of millions.

Brilliant.  Sad, but brilliant nonetheless.

THE UPSHOT

As I stood waiting for Judge Torrence to come back with his verdict, I looked down and to my right to see two women and a man praying silently in the courtroom gallery.  The women were rubbing rosaries.

I asked Brea Roper, a Kansas City Catholic parishioner, why she’d come to the trial.

“We’re here in support of Bishop Finn and the diocese,” Roper said.  “We’re here in support of truth.”

She then added she was praying for Ratigan’s victims and the judge.  Roper later gave me an interview outside the courtroom explaining she didn’t believe Finn ever did anything intentionally wrong and she was ready for him to continue as her shepherd.

I’m religious, so I understand the concept of faith in a higher power.  It scares me, however, when we apply that faith to spiritual leaders.

I don’t believe for a second Finn will be in Kansas City this time next year, and I have my doubts about this time next month.  Once Finn’s two-year probation is completed, the criminal conviction disappears from his record.

In the year-plus since Ratigan’s arrest, the diocese commissioned a highly-critical audit of its own practices and hired former prosecutor Jenifer Valenti as an ombudsman to handle any reports of child abuse.  I’ve spoken to Valenti before, and she seems qualified and dedicated to her mission.

Keep in mind, though, past self-policing didn’t work.

This is a diocese that only two years before the discovery of the images on Ratigan’s laptop settled a lawsuit for $10 million.  That case involved 47 plaintiffs and 12 priests.

Judge Torrence handed down nine probation terms against Finn and the diocese.  They include mandatory reporter training, a partnership with the FBI, and the establishment of a fund for abuse victims’ counseling.

I hope prosecutors live up to their pledge to enforce those probation terms.

We’re past trusting blind faith.

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