Et Unum Sint
By Charlie Johnston
This story has no heroes. There are villains; there are victims; there are those who were fumble-fistedly well-meaning; but there are no heroes.
It is a story for our time, a time when the mortar cementing the bricks of a solid social order are disintegrating. It is a tale of how many of the very people and entities which had helped cover up credible accusations of statutory rape of minor children against favored allies, righteously called for the head of a man they perceived to be their ideological enemy for his delay in turning in a subordinate for the lesser, but real, offense of having smutty pictures of children. It is a tale of tribalism, as various entities used the law as a cudgel to bludgeon their opponents and a shield to defend their allies. It is a story of how the guardians of the innocent agonized instead of acting when discovering there was a wolf in their midst. It is a saga of advocates of objective standards of morality retreating into moral relativism and the culture of therapy when confronted with irrefutable evidence against one of their own. The only man who seems to have learned much of anything from it is the man at the center of it, Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri Catholic Bishop Robert Finn.
The story begins on December 16, 2010, when a computer technician called in to make repairs to the laptop of diocesan priest Shawn Ratigan discovered over a hundred very disturbing pictures of young girls on the computer. Most were of clothed children, but all focused on the crotch or buttocks. Many did not even show the face of the child involved. One was a nude photo from the waist down.
The shaken technician, Ken Kes, called his friend, Deacon Mike Lewis to tell him – and show him – what he had found. Lewis was shocked and shaking. He called diocesan administrator, Msgr. Robert Murphy, who was also head of the diocesan response team for accusations against priests, and told him of the multitude of creepy pictures and described the nude photo.
Though the photos were clearly prurient, none depicted any actual sexual activity. Murphy called Police Captain Rick Smith, who was a member of the diocesan Independent Review Board (IRB), described the nude photo to him and asked if it was to be considered pornography. Smith asked experts in the department and got an ambivalent response. It might have been porn, but no one thought a charge would hold up on a single photo such as that. Murphy had not mentioned to Smith that there were a multitude of disturbing, if slightly less lascivious, pictures involved.
The laptop was turned over to Diocesan Information Director Julie Creech, who was asked to review the pictures. She did so and called in Diocesan Communications Director Rebecca Summers to review them with her. Meantime, Murphy called Bishop Finn to apprise him of the situation. Creech made copies of the photos for a permanent file – and both the women urged that the diocese turn the whole thing over to police, which was not done at that time.
Murphy confronted Ratigan, who denied the charges and claimed that the computer had been given to him used. But the next day, Ratigan attempted suicide. He was hospitalized in Kansas City. When he eventually recovered, he was sent to Pennsylvania for psychiatric evaluation. Diocesan officials struggled over how to handle it, ultimately concluding that the pictures were not legally pornographic because they did not show any sort of sexual activity or contact. Finn said he never saw the pictures; only had them described to him.
The doctor who evaluated Ratigan reported to the Diocese that he did not believe Ratigan to be a pedophile. Nonetheless, Finn assigned Ratigan to stay in a mission house in Independence, Missouri with elderly priests and to have no contact with children except for celebrating some formal Masses for student groups. The case was not turned over to the IRB because there were no complainants and the pictures were not determined to be pornographic, along with the psychiatric report.
In March, Ratigan violated the Bishop’s order by attending a sixth-grade girl’s birthday party with her family. Bishop Finn admonished him not to do that again. The diocese also turned the laptop over to Ratigan’s family, telling them it was not needed any longer and that Ratigan was banned from using computers. In April, Ratigan violated the order again – and was caught trying to take pictures under a table of a young girl whose family he was having dinner with at Easter. Finally convinced that Ratigan would not or could not control himself, the diocese notified police of the extent of the problem in mid-May. In the course of their investigation, police found many more such pictures on a computer at a parish Ratigan had worked at earlier – and CDs with similar pictures. Ratigan was eventually sentenced to 50 years in prison for both state and federal charges of producing and possessing child pornography.
Five months after the arrest of Ratigan, Jackson County, Missouri Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker got an indictment against Finn and the diocese for failing to report Ratigan to governmental authorities earlier. Controversy erupted throughout the diocese and the country as that trial wended its way through the courts. Commentators from all sides rallied to either call for Finn’s head on a platter or to defend him.
Former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves was called in to supervise a full investigation on the sequence of events and decisions by the Diocesan Independent Review Board. Ultimately, Finn was convicted of one misdemeanor count of failure under a plea agreement that saw charges dropped against the diocese. Finn was sentenced to two years probation, which was suspended.
I have never met nor spoken to Bishop Finn. Several very close friends of mine are friends of his, though. One of my dearest friends is so close to him that well before this case ever began, he asked me to pray for Finn. He told me Finn was a faithful, orthodox man who had been put in a very progressive diocese and was getting a lot of flack from some priests there who were wedded to progressive modernism. Each day, I offer prayers for all the Bishops of the world – mentioning about 15 by name, Bishops who I have some connection to at first or second hand. Throughout my pilgrimage, Bishop Finn was one of those I prayed for by name each day I walked.
Since announcing I would be doing this article, I have been contacted by several people in the Diocese who have told me that Bishop Finn was under attack from the beginning of his tenure by left-wing activists and priests, by the National Catholic Reporter (NCR), which is headquartered in the diocese and is the voice of left-wing Catholic ideology in America. While NCR is clearly an advocate, it is by no means as degenerate as much of the establishment secular press. It does some solid journalism and is a good source, provided you make mental allowances that it takes its left-wing activism at least as seriously as its Catholicism.
All of my friends who know Bishop Finn, many of whom I count among my most trusted confidantes, speak in absolutely glowing terms about him.
When the case erupted onto the national scene, the battle lines seemed to be drawn on ideological, rather than legal or religious lines. The left-wing Kansas City Star and that bastion of American liberalism, the New York Times, called loudly for Finn’s head. NCR, which had already had an ongoing ideological battle with him wrote one of the more comically schizophrenic editorials ever when the indictment was announced. In its first line, it warned against anyone making a rush to judgment. That, apparently, was just a fig leaf thrown over its enmity towards an entrenched ideological enemy, though, for it ended by ignoring its own advice and calling for his immediate resignation.
The NY Times and the KC Star postured as principled, doctrinaire defenders of children. But when former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline investigated Planned Parenthood of Overland Park and the late abortion provider George Tiller for systematically covering up cases of statutory rape in cases where minor girls sought abortions, the Kansas City Star vigorously defended Planned Parenthood and Tiller, ideological allies. The charges were eventually dismissed on technical grounds, while the judges involved largely conceded that it was likely crimes had been committed. The Kansas City Star, unsatisfied with having successfully shielded their ideological allies from being penalized for credible evidence of actually covering up child rape, joined in a crusade to disbar Kline for accessing private medical records. He was disbarred for that, while the child rape cases he uncovered were ignored. The KC Star won a “Maggie” Award from Planned Parenthood for its excellent editorial coverage of the issue.
The New York Times has long been a defender of Planned Parenthood. More importantly, when disgraced former Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland rose to blame former Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI for the sexual assault crisis, the Times resurrected him as an honorable, knowledgeable source. Certainly, Weakland was knowledgeable about sex abuse and criminality. He used funds from the Archdiocese to settle a lawsuit with a former homosexual lover over abuse. But as long as he was willing to smear orthodox Catholics, the NY Times was willing to overlook his disgrace.
Prosecutor Peters is from Missouri, not Kansas. But she won the endorsement of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) in her bid for election to the office she holds. I don’t know what her position on the Kansas case was, but she is part of the same tribe as the KC Star and the NY Times.
I am less than impressed when advocates who win awards for shielding allies from credible claims of covering up child rape suddenly become doctrinaire advocates for children if an ideological opponent is not quick enough to hop to it when investigating a subordinate’s trove of smutty pictures. Somehow, I don’t think the welfare of children is at the top of their priority list. It looks like ideological warfare to me, the type that has metastasized into the full-blown Rolling Stone Rape hoax and Lena Dunham’s novelistic rape charge against an innocent man. This is a tribe that doesn’t let facts get in the way of a preferred narrative.
Unfortunately, the tribalism was not confined to the leftist attackers. William Donohue’s Catholic League defended the Bishop on narrow legalistic grounds, rather than viewing it from a solid moral perspective. His narrative defense was so slanted it borders on outright deception. For example, he notes that the police were informed immediately of the problem when it was found. Technically accurate, it glides over the fact that only one of hundreds of pictures were disclosed – and only to one police officer. The police were not formally notified nor fully informed of what had been discovered. As it turns out, Donohue’s legal analysis is largely on target, but if he would have gotten there in a more candid manner it would have been more impressive. While we have come to expect that the secular world largely acts in a tribal manner these days, using the law as a cudgel against opponents and a shield against allies rather than an instrument for objective justice, we rightly expect a different standard from the leaders of our faith.
The approach of the Diocese and Bishop Finn was flawed in several ways. While it is proper not to jump mindlessly on every accusation, to show consideration for the rights of the accused as well as the accuser, this was not a “he-said, she-said” situation. In fact, there was never any “she-said” side to the story at all. The pictures were the evidence, and they spoke for themselves. Psychology is a useful tool and a miserable master. Therapeutic psychology has become the spear-point of moral relativism. On purely objective grounds, if you find hundreds of photos of crotch shots of children, even if most all are clothed, in someone’s possession, you should not need a psychological report to know you have a problem. I know I don’t want the person who cherishes such photos anywhere near my grandchildren. It is understandable that Finn did not want to subject himself to looking at such photos. But he is the Bishop. Given that Murphy gave such a truncated version of the photos to the police officer, I have some concerns about how candid and sound the counsel was that Finn was getting. That is not to excuse Finn for not examining the facts fully, himself. He is the Bishop. He will ultimately be held accountable, so he should have examined the evidence himself, to verify that he was making decisions from accurate information.
Yet for the terrible misjudgments and misguided efforts to be fair to the priest, the first thing Finn did was to remove the priest from general contact with children, get a psychiatric evaluation to try to evaluate him, and try to come up with a just resolution. That I, too, think his efforts were terribly calibrated does not make them criminal – and does not change the fact that he acted immediately to try to protect all involved. When Ratigan violated Finn’s order not to have contact with children, notwithstanding the psychiatric report, Finn ordered the police contacted and evidence turned over. It is because of Finn that the authorities came to know there was a problem in the first place. It was Finn who recruited former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves to supervise the detailed investigation into what happened, what went wrong, and how they could handle such cases in the future. To prosecute him for a case of the slows is less likely to protect children than to encourage a genuine cover-up in future cases.. It is ironic that the most vigorous prosecution of a Bishop in U.S. history comes not at the expense of a Bishop who actually worked to cover up such a scandal, but a Bishop who tried to solve the problem according to the law and then turned it over to authorities himself when he became convinced it was insoluble. But in tribal justice, it is not justice that is sought, merely sticking it to enemies and protecting allies.
There was some reasonable commentary on the case – and some that was not merely tribal. Rod Dreher wrote a blistering article from a conservative perspective on why Finn deserved indictment. Yet his argument depends on the worst possible construction of every misjudgment. It fails ultimately because if you crucify a Bishop who actually was the source of disclosure, while allowing men like Weakland to enjoy retirement in peace, you teach the lesson that disclosure is the way to get crucified and that cover-up is the way to avoid it. That is a terrible practical result, quite apart from the moral incoherence of it.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann of the neighboring Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas wrote a balanced piece in his diocesan newpaper and did a solid interview with NCR, which demonstrated its fundamental reportorial fairness even with a subject to which it was hostile.
EWTN nicely summarized the situation in a balanced manner from early on.
Before I started examining the case in detail, I thought that Bishop Finn had agreed to the plea deal to spare the diocese the trouble of ongoing litigation and to spare the families of children who didn’t even know they had been victimized from the trauma of a public trial. As I examined the evidence and the law, that did not make as much sense to me as I thought it would. There really was no legal case here. The prosecutor was crowing when she got a technical plea to a misdemeanor that carried no effective punishment, other than a figurative scarlet letter tattooed on Finn. I am convinced this would have had to be dismissed before any families would have had to be called – and that Diocesan attorneys knew it. However clumsily at first, Finn acted to protect the children of his diocese, to remove the recalcitrant priest, and to notify authorities. So why the agreement? I think Bishop Finn is exactly the man my friends have described him to be. I suspect, but have no inside knowledge, that as it became clear that there was no criminal culpability, Finn acknowledged to himself his failures as a fairly new Bishop – failure to act with dispatch from a solid, objective moral framework. I suspect Bishop Finn chose to take that scarlet letter personally as a form of penance. a reminder of what he is called to.
I may be wrong. But I know when I was running large campaigns, I sometimes had regional heads who were marvelously talented, noble and vigorous who, nonetheless, were not as frutiful as they could be. I got to where I looked forward to one such as this making a huge blunder – the sort of blunder that could get him dismissed. I had found that when a noble soul makes a huge blunder, it fills him with a steady, steely resolve that transforms him onto a true champion. So I always let one such as this up easy and, in fact, rejoiced at the opportunity to see a new champion rise. I was never disappointed. I think Bishop Finn is such a man.
I said at the outset of this story that it has no heroes – and it doesn’t. But in the outer court of the Sanhedrin the day before Good Friday, St. Peter was not a hero. His very betrayal and grief over it was a forge that formed him into one who was faithful unto death. I don’t know whether Bishop Finn has discovered such a steely, steady resolve. But if ever events should conspire to make him my Bishop, I would be pleased. He has certainly come through the forge.