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A Tale of Two Grand Juries and One New Law Suit

Originally posted at Talk to Action.

Catholic Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri has for some time, had evidence problem. He apparently withheld from police specific evidence implicating a pedophile priest for five months, and failed to come forward until the priest was arrested. What’s more Finn had been warned about the priest a year earlier.

And now that evidence, along with the testimony of Finn, and that his Vicar, Monsignor Robert Murphy, went before a Clay County grand jury and a similar panel in Jackson County, both focusing on child sexual abuse issues.

The National Catholic Reporter recently reported on Bishop Finn’s mess, and illustrated how little has changed over almost a generation. Here is an excerpt from NCR’s reporting:

Here’s how The Kansas City Star reported the new development:
“Allegations that a priest has molested a child can no longer be kept secret within the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph [Mo.],” according to a policy approved by Kansas City’s Catholic bishop.

“The new policy on sexual misconduct — at 29 pages, about five times thicker than the old one — spells out the diocese’s legal obligation to report to state investigators cases involving alleged victims under age 18 …”

According to The Star, the new policy is the work of a panel of laypersons assembled by the bishop “about 10 months ago, when he proclaimed “zero tolerance” toward clergy and other diocesan personnel who were found to have abused children.”

The issue flared up last year, The Star when Jackson County’s prosecutor criticized the diocese for refusing to provide names of parishioners who had accused a priest of caressing boys.

“I believe this diocese is taking the right steps,” the prosecutor told The Star. “It’s very important for allegations of this kind to be reported, because other children’s safety could be at stake.”

“Allegations against at least three priests in the diocese have become public in the last two years,” The Star reported.

Sound familiar? It should. It’s a familiar pattern.

Except that in this Star story, the bishop is Raymond Boland, not Robert Finn. The prosecutor is Claire McCaskill, not Jean Peters Baker. And the year is 1994, not 2011.

In 2008 the Diocese entered into a settlement agreement with forty-seven sexual abuse victims. As part of the settlement, the Diocese was also required to put into place a series of procedures for reporting instances of sexual abuse. But Bishop
Finn’s failure to take decisive action with regard to Father Ratigan has placed him on the hot seat. A panel appointed by Finn himself reviewed the diocese’s behavior and provided no comfort. As the National Catholic Reporter reported, citing the key finding, “individuals in positions of authority reacted to events in ways that could have jeopardized the safety of children in diocesan parishes, school, and families.”

Bishop Finn’s legal problems have suddenly gotten a lot bigger. Beyond the two grand jury investigations, the Associated Press reported that forty-two of the signatories of the 2008 settlement have filed a complaint for specific performance (no money damages):

The 12-page suit filed Thursday in Jackson County Circuit Court accuses the diocese and Bishop Robert Finn of “breach of contract.” As part of a $10 million group settlement reached three years ago with 47 victims of clerical sexual abuse, the diocese agreed to 19 reforms. They include reporting any suspicions that children were being placed in danger.

The suit, filed by 42 of the victims, said that didn’t happen and that diocesan officials knew for five months about troubling photos of girls on a computer used by the Rev. Shawn Ratigan and did not formally notify authorities. Ratigan has pleaded not guilty to several child pornography charges.

Bishop Finn, who has apologized for his lack of leadership, it is worth recalling that this is the same cleric who called for Catholicism to be “the Church militant” in its approach to curtailing abortion rights. His legacy as a leader will have instead, turned his Diocese into “the Church negligent” for his having failed to protect children under his own charge from an alleged abuser.

There is a concept in the law known as constructive notice. Simply put, walking around for a long time with a note in your pocket about a priest with a penchant for the improper touching of young girls — as Bishop Finn admittedly had done — fits the definition to a tee.

Last June The Kansas City Star called for the bishop’s resignation, noting, “shattered moral guidelines.” If anything, that is an understatement. Catholics both within and beyond the bishop’s diocese are fed up with this continued lack of accountability. Perhaps it is not only time for him to go, but time for him to go jail.

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