KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph has agreed to meet monthly for the next five years with a county prosecutor to avoid a possible criminal misdemeanor indictment for failing to report a priest suspected of child abuse.
The agreement was reached Nov. 15 with Daniel White, the prosecuting attorney of Clay County. The bishop will meet each month with White and report all instances of suspected child abuse in the diocese.
In mid-October, the bishop and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph entered pleas of not guilty to misdemeanor charges of failure to report child abuse brought by the Jackson County prosecutor in the case of Father Shawn Ratigan.
Father Ratigan was arrested in May on state charges of possessing child pornography and charged in Clay County. In August, federal prosecutors charged him with producing child pornography.
The case has been taken up by grand juries in two counties because the diocese is based in Jackson County and the priest was accused of taking some of the pornographic images in Clay County.
Father Ratigan, a former pastor, also is facing accusations made against him in two separate lawsuits filed this summer.
The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and Bishop Finn also have been named in the civil suits, which accuse both of failing to keep the priest away from children apparently after learning disturbing images were found on the priest’s computer and being warned of the priest’s inappropriate behavior around children.
On Nov. 16, another lawsuit was filed against Bishop Finn by the family of a girl who says she was photographed by Father Ratigan. The suit claims the bishop’s delay in reporting this priest led to the abuse of the 10-year-old girl.
White announced Nov. 15 that a grand jury had indicted Father Ratigan on three counts of possessing child pornography. The new indictment supersedes a state criminal complaint that charged the priest on May 19. Father Ratigan, 46, also faces a 13-count federal indictment of possessing, producing and attempting to produce child pornography. He remains in federal custody.
The Clay County indictment alleges that Father Ratigan possessed three images of child pornography on a computer on May 13. White said each of those counts is a Class C felony, punishable by up to seven years in prison and a fine of up to $5,000.
Clay County authorities have agreed not to prosecute Bishop Finn if he continues to meet with the prosecutor and report all suspected episodes of abuse within the diocese. He also needs to outline what steps the diocese has taken to address any abuse allegations and let White determine if there should be a police investigation.
Bishop Finn also agreed to visit all nine Clay County parishes with a diocesan representative and a new diocesan director of Child and Youth Protection to outline new programs the diocese is implementing to protect children.
“This agreement provides a structure for us to maintain an open dialogue about any and all issues of abuse of minors within Catholic parishes and institutions in Clay County,” said Bishop Finn in a Nov. 15 statement. “I am grateful for this opportunity to resolve this matter and to further strengthen our diocesan commitment to the protection of children.”
“The children of our community must be our first priority,” he added. “Each deserves no more and no less. I stand ready to do all within my power not only to satisfy this agreement but also to ensure the welfare and safety of all children under our care.”
The bishop, who was attending the annual bishops’ meeting in Baltimore when the agreement was made public, also said in his statement that he would be collaborating with the diocesan ombudsman and a not-yet appointed director of Child and Youth Protection who will oversee child safety training programs and will serve all 27 counties in the diocese.
White said the diversion agreement would be “a learning experience for the bishop,” noting that the “diocese and the bishop acknowledge past reporting systems have flaws.”
“Injecting an outsider into the mix — an outsider who can trigger a criminal investigation and file charges — gives parents and children in our community confidence that if anything were to happen it will be promptly and effectively addressed,” he added.
White also said the agreement would be “building mechanisms of accountability and trust while balancing the concerns raised by faithful Clay County Catholics.”
“There will be no layer of bureaucracy between a reporting party and the person making the investigative decisions,” he added. He also noted that this “direct, independent and outside oversight” coupled with the ability to file a misdemeanor charge in the next five years “gives assurances to parents that the diocese is serious about addressing this issue.”
A joint statement released by Bishop Finn’s lawyers, Gerald M. Handley and J.R. Hobbs, said the diversion agreement is “fair and meaningful and will promote an environment to protect the interest of children.”
Under diversion programs defendants usually must complete a prescribed period of service, study or treatment to avoid prosecution. If the defendant fulfills the terms of the agreement, the authorities drop the criminal charges. In Bishop Finn’s case, no charge has been filed in Clay County.
At least two other U.S. Catholic dioceses made agreements with civil authorities similar to that of Bishop Finn.
In 2006, Bishop Daniel F. Walsh of Santa Rosa, Calif., agreed to enroll in a diversion counseling program in lieu of facing possible criminal charges for what civil authorities said was a delay in reporting allegations that one of his priests sexually abused a minor.
In 2002, the Diocese of Manchester, N.H., acknowledged that past lax practices with regard to clergy sexual abuse of minors were possible grounds for criminal charges. The state agreed not to press charges in return for the diocese publicly releasing thousands of pages of files and agreeing to five years of annual audits on its sex abuse and child protection practices, conducted by a state-chosen independent auditor
According to a report in the Kansas City Star, authorities in both Clay and Jackson counties have approved more than a thousand diversion agreements for participants in drug court programs. It said prosecutors will approve diversion agreements with domestic violence defendants to ensure that they attend counseling programs mandated by the court.