The switch from a jury to a bench trial for Bishop Robert Finn, convicted Thursday of trying to protect a priest by failing to report suspected child abuse, was a “masterful” public relations move to resolve the
case quickly and minimize the damage to the church, an advocate for church sexual abuse victims says.
Finn, the highest-ranking Catholic cleric in the United States to face criminal charges in the church’s child sex abuse scandal, was found guilty Thursday of on one misdemeanor count of failure to report suspicions of child abuse and was acquitted on a second count. He was sentenced to two years’ probation, which will be suspended under specific conditions.
On the plus side, the joint move by the defense and prosecutors to switch the trial with just 24 hours’ notice spared victims and their families the agony of testifying at a long, drawn-out jury trial that had been predicted to go on for two weeks or longer later this month.
But David Clohessy, the St. Louis-based director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said he believed the bishop’s motive was to spare himself more humiliation.
“This was masterful public relations by a desperate bishop,” Clohessy told me. “It was clearly designed to minimize public input and public awareness.”
Though Finn’s conviction was overshadowed in the news cycle by the final day of the Democratic National Convention, it still made headlines across the country on Thursday and shared the front page of the Kansas City Star with DNC coverage.
Clohessy said he has spoken to “literally a half-dozen out-of-town journalists” who had planned to do “lengthy advance stories” before the planned jury trial.
Instead, the afternoon bench trial consisted of 10-minute opening statements by the prosecutor and defense attorneys, followed by a 10-page “stipulation of facts” hammered out by both sides and given to the judge.
Meanwhile, reporters in the media overflow room updated the public with constant tweets (#finntrial) on the progress of the hour-long trial.
After a 30-minute recess, Jackson County Circuit Judge John Torrence returned with the verdict: guilty on one count of failing to report suspicions of child abuse from Feb. 11 to May 11, 2011. Torrence dismissed the count covering Dec. 2010 to Feb. 10, 2011, citing insufficient evidence.
The charges against the Kansas City-St. Joseph Roman Catholic diocese were dropped.
Finn, 59, who was dressed in the clergy’s traditional black robes, apologized before his sentencing. “I truly regret and am sorry for the hurt these events have caused,”he said.
Finn’s sentenced of two years’ probation will be removed from his record if he sticks to nine conditions set forth by the court that include the establishment of a $10,000 counseling fund for abuse victims and efforts to bring more public recognition to child abuse and child pornography.
Finn could have faced a year in jail and a $1,000 fine for each count.
The National Catholic Reporter says the criminal cases have cost the diocese $1.39 million.
The “stipulation of facts” presented to the judge lays out the history of the case in chilling detail. It’s not easy reading, and it’s eerily reminiscent of the report issued after the child sex abuse case of Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky, with adults failing to put concern for children as a top priority. Most damning is Finn’s statement to a group of priests explaining that he didn't report the suspected abuse by priest Shawn Ratigan sooner because he “wanted to save Fr. Ratigan's priesthood.”
The case began when a computer technician who was asked to work on Ratigan’s laptop in December 2010 discovered hundreds of pornographic photos, most of them focusing on the crotch area of small girls.
The technician reported the photos to the deacon of St. Patrick’s Parish and was described “as being so upset his hands were shaking to the point he couldn’t open the laptop.”
Ratigan attempted suicide after being confronted by church officials about the photos Dec. 17, 2010.
The criminal charges against Finn stem from the fact that he failed to contact the Division of Family Services after learning about the photos. Instead, he ordered Ratigan to avoid contact with children, sent him to a convent in Independence, Mo., and contacted Pennsylvania psychiatrist Rick Fitzgibbons and asked him to treat the priest.
When Ratigan violated those orders by reportedly attending a parade and a child’s birthday party, Monsignor Robert Murphy, Finn’s second-in-command in the diocese, contacted the police in May 2011.
Ratigan pleaded guilty in August in federal court to four counts of producing child pornography and one count of attempting to produce child pornography. He sits in jail, awaiting sentencing.
The National Catholic Reporter says the criminal cases have cost the diocese $1.39 million in legal fees.
The cost, of course, goes beyond dollars. There is the damage to the victims and their families, who were violated by someone in a position of trust. And there is the continuing damage to the reputation of the Catholic Church.
Clohessy acknowledged that he was disappointed that Finn’s punishment by the court was not more severe. “I can’t imagine a more powerful deterrent than being thrown in jail,” Clohessy told me. “It’s the only approach that’s never been tried.”
Civil lawsuits, massive settlements, parishioner outrage and media exposure have failed to spur reform in the way the church handles child sexual abuse, he said, and he’s tired of the struggle against a Catholic hierarchy that “protects predator priests instead of kids.”
At a news conference Friday, Clohessy called for the Vatican to step in and remove Finn as bishop. “The Church should hold bishops to a higher standard than secular law,” Clohessy said.
Diana Reese is a freelance journalist in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @dianareese.