Why did Kansas City’s Bishop Robert Finn, convicted in criminal court Thursday of failing to report child abuse, work so hard to ignore the sins of pedophile priest Shawn Ratigan? According to testimony, he had wanted “to save Father Ratigan’s priesthood.” One tragic downside to allowing only celibate men to serve as Catholic priests is that it greatly reduces the pool of available priests. I can’t begin to stretch my imagination around protecting the priesthood of someone like Fr. Ratigan, but that does seem to be the driving motivation of many church leaders who choose to ignore not just civil law, but what is now canon law of the Catholic church in cases of child sexual abuse.
The New York Times presents a compelling look at the case of Fr. Ratigan and Bishop Finn:
The bishop had advance warning about Father Ratigan, well before pornography was discovered on the priest’s laptop. Julie Hess, the principal of the parochial school, next door to St. Patrick Parish where Father Ratigan served, had sent a memorandum in May of 2010 to the diocese, which said:
“Parents, staff members, and parishioners are discussing his actions and whether or not he may be a child molester. They have researched pedophilia on the Internet and took in sample articles with examples of how Father Shawn’s actions fit the profile of a child predator.”
Children in the diocese’s schools are taught about appropriate boundaries between adults and children in an abuse-prevention education program called Circle of Grace. Ms. Hess said that while she was inclined to believe that Father Ratigan’s behavior amounted to nothing more than “boundary violations,” other adults were alarmed about specific events: Father Ratigan had put a girl on his lap on a bus trip, attempted to “friend” an eighth grader on Facebook, and had an inappropriate “peer to peer” relationship with a fifth-grade girl. On a children’s group excursion to Father Ratigan’s house, parents spotted hand towels shaped to look like dolls’ clothes, and a pair of girls’ panties in a planter in his yard.
The bishop told Father Ratigan in June 2010 that “we have to take this seriously.” But the testimony showed that the bishop, too, perceived the concerns simply as “boundary issues.”
Nine days before Christmas, Father Ratigan took his sluggish laptop to Ken Kes, a computer technician on contract with St. Patrick Parish, for repairs. Mr. Kes was startled to find photographs of young girls’ torsos and crotches. When he saw the one of the naked toddler, he took the laptop to the parish’s deacon. Mr. Kes is described in the testimony as “being so upset that his hands were shaking to the point he couldn’t open the laptop.”
The deacon immediately took the laptop to Monsignor Murphy at the chancery offices. He gave it to Julie Creech, a technology staff member at the diocese. Ms. Creech found “hundreds of photographs,” according to the testimony, many taken on playgrounds, under tables or in one case, while a girl was sleeping. Many pictures did not show faces — only close-ups of crotches. Ms. Creech wrote a report for her superiors noting that only four or five of the hundreds of pictures appeared to have been downloaded from the Internet: “the rest appeared to have been taken with a personal camera.”
Nevertheless, even before getting the laptop, Monsignor Murphy had already consulted with a Kansas City Police Department captain who served on the diocese’s Independent Review Board. The Graves report said that the captain, Rick Smith, recalled being told by Monsignor Murphy that the diocese had found only one nude photograph, that it was of a member of Father Ratigan’s family, and that it was not a sexual pose. Monsignor Murphy said he did not remember telling the captain those things. Their recollections also differed on what the captain had said about whether the photograph constituted pornography.
The next day, Dec. 17, 2010, Father Ratigan attempted suicide. He 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.
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