Kansas City, Missouri -- A Roman Catholic priest in Kansas City pleaded guilty Thursday to producing child pornography in a federal case that also led to charges against the diocese bishop for failing to report suspected child abuse, and prosecutors said they would recommend that he be sentenced to life in prison.
The Rev. Shawn Ratigan, 46, had been scheduled for trial later this month. He was charged with child pornography in May 2011 in Clay County after police received a flash drive from the priest's computer that contained hundreds of images of children, most of them clothed, with the focus on their crotch areas. Prosecutors alleged he photographed girls, sometimes under their skirts, in and around churches where he had worked in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
Under terms of the plea deal, Ratigan pleaded guilty to four counts of producing child pornography and one count of attempting to produce child porn. Eight other counts against Ratigan were dismissed.
Acting U.S. Attorney David Ketchmark said the guilty pleas represent one charge for each of five victims whose abuse started in June 2005 — one year after Ratigan was ordained as a priest.
"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," Ketchmark said at a news conference after Ratigan's plea hearing. "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."
The case opened old wounds for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, which in 2008 agreed to pay 47 clergy abuse victims a total of $10 million and promised to train its priests about sexual abuse awareness and to report any suspicions that children were being placed in danger.
It also led to misdemeanor criminal charges against the diocese and Bishop Robert Finn — the highest-ranking Catholic official in the U.S. to be charged with shielding an abusive priest — for failing to report suspected child abuse to the state. Both have pleaded not guilty and are scheduled to go to trial in September.
In a statement released Wednesday, the diocese expressed its "profound concern" for anyone harmed by Ratigan and said it is committed to making sure "every report of sexual abuse, boundary violation or misconduct is addressed thoroughly and immediately."
Ratigan, who appeared in court in an orange jail jumpsuit, with his hands and feet shackled, softly acknowledged to U.S. District Judge Gary Fenner that he understood that each count carried a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Ketchmark said the priest's plea means his victims won't have to go through a trial. Beyond that, the prosecutor said Ratigan gets very little from the plea deal, especially since the eight related counts that were dropped can be taken into consideration when he is sentenced.
"Our recommendation will be a virtual life sentence to ensure there's no opportunity for him to harm another child," Ketchmark said.