I’ve covered the sex abuse scandal in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church for a long time, but I can’t say I ever expected to see a bishop actually indicted for covering up abuse, let alone a diocese.
Today, Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failing to report suspected child abuse by a priest. The diocese was similarly charged and also entered a not guilty plea. The indictment was returned by a Jackson County, Mo., grand jury and unsealed today.
Unlike so many of the sex abuse cases involving Catholic clergy, this is not an old case only now coming to light. The diocese and the bishop had received complaints about the Rev. Shawn Ratigan last year and last December found child pornography on his computer. They did not turn over the photos to police. In the meantime, they relieved Ratigan of his duties as a parish priest, but he remained in the diocese and attempted to take inappropriate photos of a 12-year-old girl. He was arrested in May.
An independent commission tasked by the diocese with investigating its handling of the case has already determined that the diocese failed to follow its own policies and procedures, the Kansas City Star reports. The report concluded that “individuals in positions of authority reacted to events in ways that could have jeopardized the safety of children in diocesan parishes, schools and families.”
The handling of the Ratigan case, and today’s indictments, suggest that once again reforms — undertaken to change the ecclesiastical culture and to establish standards and guidelines to prevent recurrences of past abuses and coverups — have failed. It isn’t the first time. The first priest sex abuse scandal in the U.S. emerged in the mid-1980s in my home diocese in Louisiana. It led to a bishop’s resignation, the jailing of a priest, tens of millions of dollars paid in legal settlements, and most troublingly revealed a pattern of abuse and coverups stretching back decades involving numerous clergy and perhaps hundreds of child victims.
Reforms were initially resisted, then in many cases grudgingly implemented. But by the early 2000s, another much larger round of abuse cases emerged in dioceses all across the country. Many allegations involved long ago incidents when abuse victims and their families could not dream of reporting a priest to police. But when word did reach church authorities, the same pattern repeated itself: they downplayed the incidents, covered them up, minimized the larger systemic problem, and left victims and their families feeling lost and abandoned.
That lead to another round of reforms: more policies and procedures, more training, and more assurances that the scourge had been eliminated, even as revelations spread to European dioceses and the Vatican was forced to address the problem publicly.
After more than 25 years of pain, soul-searching, and staggering legal costs, we seem not to have come very far. Criminal prosecution was the only option left. It shouldn’t have taken so long.
David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.