Bill Donohue stands by his man.
It has never seemed the best hill to die on, but apparently Catholic League president Bill Donohue doesn’t know how to quit defending Bishop Robert Finn, who was found guilty this week of one misdemeanor count of failing to report suspected child abuse. (Be sure to read David Gibson’s post on the devastating Times story.) Back in November, Donohue declared that Finn was “an innocent man,” and flew all the way to Kansas City just to show how much he meant it. “In an ideal world,” Donohue claimed, “there would have been no charges whatsoever: there was no complainant and no violation of law.” Yes, and in an ideal world, when a U.S. bishop learns — nearly a decade after the 2002 wave of scandals broke — that one of his priests has crotch shots of kids on his computer, after having learned about a detailed letter of complaint about the guy from a Catholic school principal, the bishop would report the priest to the proper authorities, in accordance with civil and canon law. But that’s not the world Bishop Finn was living in. So now he stands convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse. In other words, Finn is not an innocent man. That’s why he issued a statement — both through his lawyer (.doc) and on his own behalf (.doc) — that contains apologetic-sounding words arranged in a way that avoids actually accepting responsibility for his failure to report the pornographer priest Ratigan. (Do yourself a favor and read Mark Silk on that and more here.)
You’d think Finn’s conviction would be enough to force Donohue back from the ledge, or at least show a measure of contrition. But no. He’s going all the way over. In his latest pronouncement, magisterially titled “Assessing Bishop Finn’s Guilt,” Donohue purports to bust some myths about the Finn case. Instead, he perpetrates some myth-making of his own. Let’s have a look. Donohue:
Bishop Finn was not found guilty of a felony: he was found guilty of one misdemeanor, and innocent of another. The case did not involve child sexual abuse—no child was ever abused, or touched, in any way by Father Shawn Ratigan. Nor did this case involve child pornography.
True, Finn was not convicted of a felony. He was convicted of a misdemeanor because he failed to call the police when he had reason to suspect Fr. Shawn Ratigan of being a threat to children.
But Donohue is out to lunch when he claims that “the case did not involve child abuse.” In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI amended church norms to define sexual abuse as including “the acquisition, possession, or distribution by a cleric of pornographic images of minors under the age of fourteen, for purposes of sexual gratification, by whatever means or using whatever technology.” (Canon law considers children under fourteen to be prepubescent.) Donohue may not think Ratigan’s photos of children are pornographic, but the law does.
You know who else does? Shawn Ratigan. In August, he pleaded guilty to four counts of possession of child pornography. (Did you know that Bishop Finn’s first pastoral letter warned about the dangers of pornography?) What’s more, one of the stipulated facts to which both the prosecution and Bishop Finn agreed includes a key statement from Ratigan, taken from a February 2011 letter he sent to Finn, which begins: “I am going to give you a brief summary of how I got to where I am with my addiction to pornography.” A memo prepared by two diocesan employees describe some of the troubling images on Ratigan’s computer this way:
In the hundreds of photos it became obvious the viewer is focusing on the female pelvic region. It is also obvious that some photos were taken from a camera positioned under a table in which girls were sitting in their swimsuits or under playground equipment in which girls were climbing above. There is also a photo with a little girl sleeping and someone has changed the location of her hand and clothing while she sleeps to take the photos. It appears that 4‐5 photos were downloaded while the others seem to have been taken from a personal camera.
These are staged photos. They could not be taken without engaging in a form of sexual abuse. Who moved the child? How? This is why the Vatican amended its guidelines to include possession of child pornography in its definition of sexual abuse. Why doesn’t Bill Donohue understand this?
Back to his missive:
On December 16, 2010, a computer technician found crotch-shot pictures of children, fully clothed, on Ratigan’s computer; there was one that showed a girl’s genitals exposed. The next day Ratigan attempted suicide. The Vicar General, Msgr. Robert Murphy, without seeing the photos, contacted a police officer about this matter. The officer, after consulting with another cop, said a single photo of a non-sexual nature would not constitute pornography. After a few more of the same types of photos were found, an attorney rendered the same judgment: they were not pornographic.
Not quite. Here’s what really happened. Start with the technician’s account:
“I looked at the first one [photo]. It was a young girl climbing up the back of a pickup truck and I thought, huh, that’s kind of a neat shot,” the 59-year-old [Ken] Kes recalled. “The next one that I clicked on was a girl… climbing out of swimming pool and all it showed was her rear end. Then there was a little girl on the grass with her legs spread. All you could see was the area from her belly button to her knees.”
By the time Kes got to a graphic photo of a little girl on a bed, exposed below the waist, his hands were shaking and he was in full panic.
“I stopped looking right there and got on the phone,” he said.
As reported by Reuters, everyone Kes talked to told him to call the cops — except for his wife. She urged him to inform the diocese and take the computer back to Ratigan’s parish (St. Patrick’s). That’s what he did. When he returned to St. Patrick’s, he showed the photos to his friend Deacon Mike Lewis, who in turn phoned Msgr. Robert Murphy, vicar general of the diocese, and described some of what Kes had discovered.
Just seven months earlier, St. Patrick’s School principal Julie Hess had shared with Lewis parents’ and teachers’ concerns about Ratigan’s behavior with children (on one occasion, parents of Brownie Girl Scouts were planting flowers in Ratigan’s yard and found a pair of a young girl’s underwear in a planter). [Edit: I should have mentioned that Lewis urged Hess to convey these worries directly to Msgr. Murphy. She sent him a long, damning letter (.pdf) dated May 19. Read it. About a year later, Ratigan was arrested.] So Lewis must have sensed the urgency of the situation. Presumably he conveyed some of that to Murphy. Yet when Murphy turned around and called Rick Smith, a cop who served on the diocesan review board, he only shared Lewis’s description of one nude photo of a girl thought to be Ratigan’s niece. Murphy hadn’t yet seen any of the photos.
According to Smith, Murphy said the photo depicted a girl in a nonsexual pose. Murphy asked Smith whether such a photo would constitute child pornography. The police officer said he’d seek advice from an expert in the department and get back to Murphy. Smith too had not seen the photo in question, nor did he have any idea how many more problematic photos were in Ratigan’s possession. The expert Smith contacted said the photo might or might not be pornographic. But on Donohue’s telling, the expert “said a single photo of a non-sexual nature would not constitute pornography.” That is false, as the independent report (.pdf) Finn commissioned makes clear. Has Judge Donohue even bothered to read the Graves Report? (Most of my summary of events comes from that document.)
Donohue asserts, “After a few more of the same types of photos were found, an attorney rendered the same judgment: they were not pornographic.” But he doesn’t tell you that the attorney worked for the diocese. Nor does he tell you that Murphy had asked Julie Creech, diocesan director of information systems, to examine Ratigan’s computer, and that she found photos like this (from the report):
In a “staged sequence,” the photos depicted the girl lying down in a bed, from the waist down, and focused on the crotch. The girl was wearing only a diaper, but with each photo, the diaper was moved gradually to expose her genitals. By the last photo, her genitals were fully exposed. According to Ms. Creech, there were approximately six to eight pictures in this sequence of photos; two displayed fully exposed genitals and one displayed her fully exposed buttocks.
After finding many more disturbing photos — photos she considered sexual in nature — along with web-browsing history indicating an interest in spy-cams and two-way mirrors, and links to the Facebook pages of several young girls, Creech shared that information with Murphy and advised him to call the police. So did the diocesan communications director at the time, Rebecca Summers. (Murphy told investigators that he had no recollection of those conversations.)
Instead, Murphy informed Bishop Finn of the discovery. The next day, December 17, Murphy contacted diocesan attorney Jon Haden, gave him Ratigan’s laptop, a memo summarizing its contents, along with some printed photos. Haden didn’t think the images amounted to pornography under state law. According to the Graves Report, Haden said he’d “viewed only those images that had been printed and attached to the Creech and Moss memorandum [which described in some detail what the laptop contained], which were only a subset of all of the images viewed by Ms. Creech and Ms. Moss and described in their memo.” But he had the laptop, which means he had access to all the photos. Still, even if he couldn’t be bothered to look through the images on Ratigan’s computer, why wouldn’t he think the photos described in the memo were pornographic according to Missouri state law? Here’s how the statute defines child pornography:
(a) Any obscene material or performance depicting sexual conduct, sexual contact, or a sexual performance, as these terms are defined in section 556.061, RSMo, and which has as one of its participants or portrays as an observer of such conduct, contact, or performance a minor under the age of eighteen; or
(b) Any visual depiction, including any photograph, film, video, picture, or computer or computer‐generated image or picture, whether made or produced by electronic, mechanical, or other means, of sexually explicit conduct where:
a. The production of such visual depiction involves the use of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct;
b. Such visual depiction is a digital image, computer image, or computer‐generated image that is, or is indistinguishable from, that of a minor engaging in sexually explicit conduct; or
c. Such visual depiction has been created, adapted, or modified to show that an identifiable minor is engaging in sexually explicit conduct.
As the Graves Report clarifies, “sexually explicit conduct” is defined in § 573.010(18). It includes “lascivious exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of any person.” Who would doubt that a series of shots gradually revealing a little girl’s vagina counts as lascivious exhibition? Indeed, according to the report, Missouri has seen cases in which “defendants have been successfully prosecuted and convicted of possession of child pornography for pictures focused on the nude genitalia of children, even where the children were not engaged in sexual acts.”
That may surprise Bill Donohue, but it shouldn’t. Children depicted in pornographic photos do not pose themselves. This concern was raised by diocesan employees, including the lawyer Haden. They pressed Bishop Finn and Msgr. Murphy to take steps to learn the identity of the faceless children in Ratigan’s collection. Because no one knew how many of the photos he had downloaded or how many he’d taken himself, “there was a distinct possibility that the children in some of the photographs had been abused by Fr. Ratigan in the process of taking the pictures or at other times,” according to the Graves Report. Yet Finn and Murphy told investigators they had made no effort to identify those kids.
Nor did they inform the diocesan review board, offering the pathetic explanation — one Donohue has happily parroted — that there was no identifiable complainant. Which is not surprising when you make no effort to figure out the names of the kids in Ratigan’s collection. Of course, it doesn’t matter whether there is a complainant. Possessing child pornography is defined by the Vatican as a form of sexual abuse — and is illegal. Photos can’t complain. The point is that you can’t take pornographic pictures of kids without abusing them.
Back to Bill:
Finn then asked a psychiatrist to evaluate Ratigan. The bishop was given the judgment of a professional: the priest was not a risk to children (he was diagnosed as suffering from depression). Finn then placed restrictions on Ratigan, which he broke. When it was found that Ratigan was again using a computer, upon examination more disturbing photos were found. Murphy then called the cops (Finn was out of town) and a week later Ratigan was arrested.
Yes, after Ratigan survived a suicide attempt, Finn sent him to a Pennsylvania shrink, Richard Fitzgibbons, who had worked with diocesan priests before. [Edit: He has also served as an adviser to a support group for accused priests.] That was January 9, 2011. Rather than rely on the diocesan review board to determine whether Ratigan should be removed from ministry, Finn decided to let the psychiatrist handle it. Ratigan convinced the doctor that his porno problem stemmed from loneliness and depression, which was exacerbated by his sense that the school principal was “out to get him.” So the doctor initially concluded that Ratigan posed no threat to children.
It wasn’t until weeks after he’d offered his provisional conclusion that the shrink asked to see the photos. Finn had a CD containing the images sent to him, and informed him about Ratigan’s internet usage. Yet the doctor didn’t change his mind. Finn seems to be the lone diocesan official who thought that one doctor’s opinion was sufficient. Murphy said he urged Finn to seek a second opinion. So did Msgr. Bradley Offut, chancellor of the diocese.
While it’s true that Finn limited Ratigan’s ministry, and that determined abusers will usually find a way to act on their urges, the restrictions conveyed a mixed message. Ratigan was to “avoid all contact with children,” yet he was allowed to say mass for youth groups at the Franciscan Prayer Center, across the street from the Vincentian residence he was assigned to. Finn had intended to bar Ratigan from all contact with minors, but when he learned that families and youth groups sometimes visited the Prayer Center for retreats, Finn decided to allow Ratigan to say Mass for kids or when they were present. Finn told the Graves investigators that he had the superiors of the Vincentian residence informed of the circumstances of Ratigan’s assignment — including his restrictions. But the superiors said they were told no such thing. Instead, they thought Ratigan was just going to live there while he recuperated from his suicide attempt. If they had known about the laptop, the Vincentians told the Graves investigators, they never would have allowed Ratigan to stay with them.
By the end of March it became clear to Finn and other diocesan officials that Ratigan was not following the restrictions placed on him by the bishop. He was found using Facebook — just to check e-mail, he promised Finn. The bishop admitted he’d made no attempt to make sure that Ratigan was using an internet monitoring tool. Then Ratigan showed up at a local parade — lots of kids there, of course. And he attended a birthday party for a young girl. Finn talked to him about it on April 8, admonishing him to obey the restrictions. But Ratigan pushed back, saying Finn “didn’t want him to have a life.” Three days later Ratigan heard the confessions of minors at the retreat center. Then he hosted an Easter party for parents and their kids. The federal indictment of Ratigan includes charges that he attempted to take pornographic photos of a girl at that party.
Donohue again: “When it was found that Ratigan was again using a computer, upon examination more disturbing photos were found. Murphy then called the cops (Finn was out of town) and a week later Ratigan was arrested.”
That’s wrong too. In fact, according to the Graves Report, there were no new photos discovered. [Edit: At that point, I should have said, no new photos had been found.] On April 19, Msgr. Murphy contacted Capt. Rick Smith (the review-board member he’d called the day the laptop photos were found), and asked if they could discuss something in person following a scheduled knee surgery. He didn’t say what. On May 11, they met, and Murphy led off the conversation by admitting that “there were hundreds of photos” on the laptop. “That’s not what you told me,” Smith replied. He told Murphy this was now a criminal matter, and that the laptop had to be turned over to the police straightaway.
Murphy told Smith that the laptop was at the offices of the diocesan legal counsel. Smith said the firm should call the police and arrange for a voluntary pickup. Murphy said he couldn’t do that right away because he had to meet with the bishop immediately following the meeting with Smith. (Apparently Finn wasn’t out of town on May 11. On May 12 he had a conference in Washington, D.C.) Smith agreed to give Murphy till that afternoon to call him back to verify that the law firm had set up the pickup. That call never came. So the next morning Smith contacted the Crimes Against Children Division to advise them of the situation, and soon after Ratigan was arrested. [Edit: After Smith contacted the Crimes Against Children Division, a parish where Ratigan had previously worked turned over a computer he had used there, which contained several images similar to those found on his laptop.]
In fact, Murphy had been mistaken about who had the laptop. Finn had been in possession of the device for a time, but eventually he turned it over to Ratigan’s brother, who of course destroyed it.
Donohue closes by gesturing toward something that resembles seriousness when it comes to sexual abuse.
The Catholic League supports harsh penalties for child sexual abusers, and for those who cover it up. But it also supports equal justice for all, and given what we know of what is going on in many other communities, religious as well as secular, we find the chorus of condemnations targeting Bishop Finn to be as unfair as they are contrived. We would be remiss if we did not mention that only two newspapers in the nation put this story on the front page: the Kansas City Star, understandably, and the New York Times.
Equal justice for all, naturally — if not equanimity in presenting all facts. But don’t forget this stuff happens in other communities too. (He neglected to mention that Jews have also been struggling with this problem. His computer’s F7 key must be broken.) And only Bill Donohue would be stunned that when a bishop is convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse — that is, the crime that has fueled the scandals from day one — it would be front-page news.
But what is he thinking when he calls the “condemnations targeting Finn…as unfair as they are contrived”? The man is guilty of not reporting suspected child abuse. He was informed of Ratigan’s disturbing photos of children (children, not teenagers) on December 16, 2010. There is nothing contrived or unfair about condemning his failure to respond adequately to the threat posed by Ratigan. He chose not to forward the case to his own sexual-abuse review board, and to take as gospel the evaluation of one psychiatrist even though his closest advisers were urging him to send Ratigan to another shrink. And when Finn learned Ratigan was not abiding even the light restrictions the bishop had placed on him, what did he do? He gave him a stern talking-to. What would have happened if Msgr. Murphy hadn’t made the decision to tell Capt. Smith the whole truth? We know what Ratigan did in the meantime. He kept looking at God-knows-what online. He heard kids’ confessions. He had parties for kids and their parents, where he apparently continued his work as an amateur pornographer. Because the bishop failed.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that a man who responds to perceived anti-Catholic humor with ethnic slurs, or whose initial response to news that a friend was accused with sexual harassment is to joke about the accuser as “a drunken girl,” or who has publicly wondered what’s wrong with teenagers who “allow themselves to be molested,” wouldn’t be able to discern the seriousness of Finn’s failures. Still, the fact that the president of the Catholic League does not grasp the gravity of these matters remains as mysterious to me as the support he receives from several bishops.