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Kansas City bishop indicted in priest sex case

The bishop and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph were charged with one count each of failure to report child abuse. The bishop and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph were charged with one count each of failure to report child abuse.
By A.G. Sulzberger and Laurie Goodstein
New York Times / October 15, 2011

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. - A bishop in the Roman Catholic Church has been indicted for failure to report suspected child abuse, the first time in the 25-year history of the church’s sex abuse scandals that the leader of an American diocese has been held criminally liable for the behavior of a priest he supervised.

The indictment of the bishop, Robert W. Finn, and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph by a county grand jury was announced yesterday. Each was charged with one misdemeanor count involving a priest accused of taking pornographic photographs of girls as recently as this year. They pleaded not guilty.

The case caused an uproar among Catholics in Kansas City this year when Finn acknowledged that he knew of the photographs last December but did not turn them over to the police until May. During that time, the priest, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, allegedly continued to attend church events with children and took lewd photographs of another young girl.

A decade ago the American bishops pledged to report suspected abusers to law enforcement authorities - a policy also recommended last year by the Vatican. Finn himself had made such a promise three years ago as part of a $10 million legal settlement with abuse victims in Kansas City.

Though the charge is only a misdemeanor, victims’ advocates immediately hailed the indictment as a breakthrough, saying that until now American bishops have avoided prosecution despite documents showing that in some cases they were aware of abuse.

“This is huge for us,’’ said Michael Hunter, director of the Kansas City chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and a victim of sexual abuse by a priest. “It’s something that I personally have been waiting for years to see, some real accountability. We’re very pleased with the prosecuting attorney here to have the guts to do it.’’ The bishop signaled he would fight the charges with all his strength. He said in a statement: “We will meet these announcements with a steady resolve and a vigorous defense.’’

The indictment announced yesterday by the Jackson County prosecutor, Jean Peters Baker, had been under seal since Oct. 6 because the bishop was out of the country. He returned Thursday night.

In a news conference, Baker said the case was not religiously motivated, but was about the obligation under state law to report child abuse.

“This is about protecting children,’’ she said.

If convicted Finn would face a possible fine of up to $1,000 and a jail sentence of up to a year. The diocese faces a possible fine of up to $5,000.

Baker said that secrecy rules for grand jury proceedings prohibited her from discussing whether other charges were considered, such as child endangerment, a felony. But she said the fact that the bishop faces a single misdemeanor count should not diminish the seriousness.

“To my knowledge a charge like this has not been leveled before,’’ she said.

It also may not mark the end of the legal troubles facing the diocese in the case, which includes civil and criminal cases in federal court. Last month Finn and Monsignor Robert Murphy testified before another grand jury in neighboring Clay County. A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office there declined to comment.

The priest accused of taking the lewd photos, Ratigan, was a frequent presence in a Catholic elementary school next to his parish. The principal there sent a letter to the diocese in May 2010 complaining about Ratigan’s behavior with children.

Then, last December, a computer technician discovered the photos on the priest’s laptop and turned the computer in to the diocese. A day later Ratigan tried to kill himself.

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