In the New York Times, Laurie Goodstein has the chronology and narrative of the Father Ratigan case in Missouri that led to Thursday’s conviction of Bishop Robert Finn for failing to report a suspect abuser. Most of the facts have been public, but set out like this they tell a devastating story that sounds like it was discovered in a time capsule buried pre-2002.
But it was in December 2010 that Finn and diocesan officials were told about suspected child porn on Ratigan’s laptop — and that news came after they had received repeated warnings about his behavior. Following the pornography discovery, Ratigan attempted suicide. And yet…
He [Ratigan] left messages apologizing to his family for “the harm caused to the children or you.” When he survived, he was sent first to a hospital, and then to Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons, a psychiatrist in Pennsylvania selected by Bishop Finn. The bishop testified that he was told by the psychiatrist that Father Ratigan was not a risk to children, and had been falsely accused by the school principal.
During this period, two women on staff in diocesan headquarters were urging their superiors to turn Father Ratigan in. Rebecca Summers, then the director of communications, told Monsignor Murphy to call the police, according to the testimony. And Julie Creech, the technology employee, said in a deposition in a related civil suit that she went to see Bishop Finn in his office to make sure he understood what she had seen on the laptop.
“I really got the feeling that maybe he didn’t understand,” Ms. Creech said in the deposition. “I don’t think he saw what I saw.”
The bishop assigned Father Ratigan to serve as a chaplain to the Franciscan Sisters of the Holy Eucharist, in Independence, Mo. He placed seven restrictions on the priest, including not using computers and avoiding all contact with children. But the bishop allowed him, on a “trial” basis, to celebrate Mass for youth groups at the prayer center that the sisters ran.
Over the next five months, Father Ratigan, who is now 46 attended a sixth-grader’s birthday party, co-celebrated a child’s confirmation, communicated with children on his Facebook page, hosted an Easter egg hunt and attended a parade, the testimony recounts. Invited to dinner at the home of parishioners, he was caught taking photographs, under the table, up their daughter’s skirt, according to a federal indictment of Father Ratigan.
Neither the bishop nor any church official told church members or Father Ratigan’s large extended family — which includes many children — that the priest had been ordered to stay away from children, Darron Blankenship, a brother-in-law of Father Ratigan and a police officer who has handled child abuse cases, said in an interview on Friday.
“For somebody that was under restrictions, he had free rein,” Officer Blankenship said. “He just went and did what he wanted.”
I’m not sure how the bishops can regain their credibility unless Bishop Finn resigns, but in my RNS story on Finn’s fate his spokesman says the bishop intends to stay. The Vatican declined to comment, and Bishop Conlon, the USCCB point man on abuse, reiterated the hierarchy’s commitment to following the civil and canon law requirements that Finn violated.
My sense is that the powers that be are waiting to see how the public and diocese will react. Maybe they will act quickly. Maybe they hope it’ll blow over sufficiently to allow Finn to stay on, or to be “promoted” some place in a couple years to save face.
Maybe they’ll take Bill Donohue’s line that this was much ado about nothing — Finn was convicted of a misdemeanor not a felony (true), it did not involve child pornography (Ratigan plead guilty last month to five federal counts of possessing and trying to create child pornography) and that “no child was ever abused,” though child pornography is an abuse violation under the bishops’ charter.
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.
Is that the story the American bishops want to tell?