Held to Account

The Ouster of Bishop Robert Finn

In a March 2014 interview, Pope Francis was given an opportunity to comment on the sexual-abuse scandal, a subject he had said remarkably little about since his election. Acknowledging the “deep wounds” suffered by victims, Francis went on to defend the church as the only public institution to address such crimes “with transparency and responsibility.” No one else has done more, he continued, and yet “the church is the only one to be attacked.”

Those ill-advised remarks took many by surprise, coming as they did just a few months after Francis had announced a new Commission for the Protection of Minors and asked the world’s bishops to support its work. The commission, which includes two victims, wasted no time publicly stating its highest priority: accountability for negligent bishops. In November 2014, Cardinal Séan O’Malley—president of the commission—told 60 Minutes that the Holy See needed to “urgently address” one of the most painful cases to emerge in the U.S. church: Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who was convicted of failing to report child abuse in 2012. Last month, following a Vatican investigation, Pope Francis removed him.

In December 2010—nearly a decade after the U.S. bishops pledged “zero tolerance” for abusive priests—Finn learned that Fr. Shawn Ratigan’s personal computer contained possibly pornographic photos of children. Five months after the photos were discovered, and without Finn’s knowledge, the vicar general turned the cleric in to the police. Ratigan, now laicized, is serving a fifty-year sentence in federal prison after pleading guilty to possessing and creating child pornography. (Federal sentencing law is especially hard on child pornographers.)

For nearly three years, Kansas City Catholics have been wondering whether a pope would replace Finn with a bishop who would put the safety of children first. On April 21, they got their answer. In a terse statement, the Holy See announced that Pope Francis had accepted Finn’s resignation. The brevity of that statement was inversely proportional to its significance for the global church.

In 2001, for example, French Bishop Pierre Pican was convicted of failing to report an allegation against a priest. He later received a letter of support from Cardinal Dario Castrillón Hoyos, then prefect of the Congregation for Clergy. Unlike Finn, who is sixty-two, Pican remained in office until the mandatory retirement age of seventy-five. As John Allen noted in the Boston Globe, no one at the Vatican has come to Finn’s defense. Should Catholics expect to see a wave of episcopal resignations? Probably not. Many of the most egregious offenders are no longer in office. But this decision sends a strong message: The era of tolerating bishops who fail to protect the most vulnerable under their care has come to an end. This pope will hold them to account.

Victims’ advocates have protested that the Holy See obfuscated the true reason for Finn’s resignation in its press release, which only mentioned the pertinent canon law (that a bishop who cannot fulfill his office because of illness or another “grave cause” should resign). They also criticize the pope for taking too long to oust Finn. On the first issue, they have a point. Francis has lauded the supposed “transparency” with which the church has handled this crisis. While there’s little doubt that the world’s bishops interpret this resignation as a warning against mishandling abuse cases, the rest of the church, especially victims, deserve a clearer explanation.

But when it comes to the second complaint—that Francis should have moved faster—the pope’s critics may fail to appreciate what he is really up to. Francis is running a church with five thousand bishops. In order to educate himself about the controversy in Kansas City, a diocese of about 133,000 in a country he’s never visited, Francis initiated an investigation last September. He allowed that process to run its course, despite increasingly strenuous calls to sack Finn. The pope’s favored methods of listening and deliberation—most evident in the Synod on the Family—are themselves instruments of justice.

“Families need to know that the church is making every effort to protect their children,” Pope Francis wrote in a February letter to bishops. “They should also know that they have every right to turn to the church with full confidence, for it is a safe and secure home.” For decades, U.S. Catholics have seen bishops who ignored or covered up abuse go unpunished. With the decision to remove Finn—and to create the Commission for the Protection of Minors—Francis has gone a long way toward dressing one of the scandal’s deepest wounds. His work is far from over, but in the meantime he has given Catholics something that has been in short supply throughout this terrible crisis: hope.

Published in the May 15, 2015 issue: 

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