Francis’s Test

10.02.14 12:00 AM ET

Will the Vatican Finally Hold This Kansas City Bishop Accountable?

The Vatican’s investigation of an American bishop could lead the way to real accountability for predatory priests, or could be business as usual for the troubled Church.

VATICAN CITY — Father Shawn Ratigan of Independence, Missouri, liked to take pictures of naked little girls. He especially liked little girls between the ages of 2 and 12. He liked to make them pose for him—sometimes completely nude, sometimes sprawled out on the grass of the fenced-in parish lawn, and sometimes he made them pull their panties away from their buttocks and vaginas so he could get a better view.  Sometimes he stole pictures in what authorities would call “up-skirt” covert images of little girls’ crotches from under tables or in the nearby Catholic school playground. He used a digital camera or his cellphone, downloading hundreds if not thousands of the pedo-pornographic pictures onto his laptop.

Ratigan would probably still be producing child pornography if a computer technician named Ken Kes hadn’t found the disturbing images on the priest’s computer in 2009 when the Kansas City diocese called him to repair the sluggish machine.  According to a Reuters report outlining the priest’s sins, Kes found the “odd images” when he was fixing the priest’s laptop.

Kes returned the computer to the administrator at the Kansas City diocese, which was, and still is, under the direction of Bishop Robert Finn. “I looked at the first one. It was a young girl climbing up the back of a pickup truck and I thought, huh, that’s kind of a neat shot,” Kes testified in court. “The next one that I clicked on was a girl climbing out of swimming pool and all it showed was her rear end. Then there was a little girl on the grass with her legs spread. All you could see was the area from her belly button to her knees. I stopped looking right there and got on the phone.”

Kes’ discovery reportedly made it to Finn’s office around the same time Ratigan attempted suicide by running his motorcycle wide open on a kickstand in his closed garage. Even then, according to the Catholic child sex abuse watchdog site Bishop Accountability, Finn allegedly chose not to share the truth with Ratigan’s congregation. “Parishioners were not informed of the reason for Ratigan’s hospitalization, and were asked to pray for him,” according to the website’s entry for the errant priest, which says the pedophile priest continued to reach out to young girls.  After his recovery, he apparently contacted one young girl on Facebook and secured a dinner invitation to the girl’s parents home where, according to Bishop Accountability, he took pictures of the girl’s bare legs under the dinner table with his cellphone while pretending to answer a message.

Finn says he eventually reprimanded Ratigan, sending him to Catholic counseling and removing him from situations in which he might be alone with children. He also forbade him from using his phone or computer.  Then, according to U.S. Attorney David Kechmark, who prosecuted the case, he gave the priest’s pornography-laden laptop to Ratigan’s family members, who destroyed it before police could collect the hardcore evidence from the computer’s drive.

But even without the evidence, by then the growing case against Ratigan had become too big to ignore. According to a New York Times report from Missouri, the principal of the parochial school sent a memorandum to Finn in May 2010 which warned that Ratigan might be dangerous—something that should have come as no surprise to Finn. “Parents, staff members, and parishioners are discussing his actions and whether or not he may be a child molester,” the principal wrote in a memo.  “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.”

Despite the multiple warnings, Bishop Finn chose to leave Ratigan in place in the parish. In May 2011, more than six months after the bishop had been alerted, Ratigan was arrested on child pornography charges.  In August 2012, Ratigan pleaded guilty to five counts of producing child pornography and was sentenced to 50 years in prison. After his guilty plea, the Vatican laicized, or defrocked, him. On September 6, 2012, less than a month after Ratigan’s plea, Finn was convicted on a misdemeanor charge of failing to report suspected child abuse. He was given a two-year suspended sentence. “With today’s guilty plea, the defendant publicly acknowledged for the first time that he sexually assaulted five young children over the course of several years,” U.S. Attorney Ketchmark told reporters after Ratigan entered his guilty plea. “When a defendant who wears a religious collar, who has the trust of a community, engages in conduct of this nature, his crimes are more devastating and more reprehensible.”

Victims groups were angry that Finn received only a slap on the hand, and even more upset that the Vatican remained silent on the issue. “Only jail time would have made a real difference here and deterred future horrific cover-ups, anything less will not produce any meaningful reform,” said Barbara Dorris, the outreach director for the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. “Bishops are tyrants and tyrants rarely honor deals. Kansas City may now be tempted to become complacent, but now more than ever victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers cannot give up and stay silent.  Now more than ever anyone who saw, suspected, or suffered clergy sex crimes and cover-ups should step forward.”

The Vatican under the previous pope, Benedict XVI, did not punish or publicly investigate Finn despite the fact that the misdemeanor conviction in a secular court was the first time in the long and sordid history of the American Catholic Church sex abuse scandal that a bishop had been held criminally accountable for protecting a priest at the expense of the children. Instead, the Kansas City diocese reportedly settled lawsuits totaling $3.75 million for the priest’s pedophilic sins. Bishop Finn was allowed to carry on his work.

The Vatican under Pope Francis appears to see the case differently. Last week, the Vatican launched an investigation into Finn’s inaction, led by Canadian Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, who visited the Kansas City diocese, apparently to dig into the extent of Finn’s alleged cover-up. According to the National Catholic Reporter, Pendergast focused on one question: “Do you think [Finn] is fit to be a leader?”

In his defense in the secular court, Finn apparently claimed that he had never seen the photos on Ratigan’s computer. He also said he had been told that they didn’t necessarily “cross the line” into pedophilia, that he hadn’t dismissed the sinful pastor because he “wanted to save Father Ratigan’s priesthood,” and that he had understood that Father Ratigan’s problem was “only pornography.”

If Francis’s Vatican investigation into Finn’s inaction results in the dismissal of the bishop, it will be the first time the Holy See has held a bishop accountable for a well-documented cover-up in a child sex abuse case. Because Finn has already been convicted in the secular courts, he is the obvious choice to make an example if, as seems to be the case, Francis is inclined to do so.

Writing in the Boston Globe’s Catholic website Crux, Vatican expert John Allen says, “The fact that Finn has remained in power following a criminal conviction has made him a lightning rod for this perceived lack of accountability, meaning that if Francis were to act in his case it would have wide symbolic resonance.”

And if the Vatican under Francis fails to find fault in Finn’s inaction, it will no doubt send an equally strong message.