Missouri bishop convicted for failing to report priest

Associated Press/September 7, 2012

Kansas City, Missouri - The first American bishop criminally charged in the clergy sex abuse scandal was found guilty Thursday of a misdemeanor count of failing to report suspected child abuse, a conviction that extends the struggle of Roman Catholic leaders to restore trust in the church.

Bishop Robert Finn was acquitted on a second count. He received two years of probation, but that sentence was suspended and will be wiped from his record if he adheres to a set of conditions that include mandatory abuse reporting training, setting aside $10,000 in diocese money for abuse victim counseling, and instructing all diocesan agents to report suspected criminal activity involving minors.

Finn and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph were each charged with two misdemeanor counts of failing to report suspected child abuse to the state. Prosecutors said they dropped charges against the diocese, and the judge is expected to sign off on that Friday.

The bishop, dressed in his traditional black garb, sat calmly throughout the hearing, even as he heard the verdict. He apologized before being sentenced, saying, "I truly regret and am sorry for the hurt these events have caused."

The charges stemmed from the child pornography case of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, in which Finn and other church officials knew about photos on the priest's computer but didn't turn him in for six months. Finn initially was charged with one misdemeanor count, but a second was added to acknowledge two separate time periods in which he failed to report suspected abuse.

On Thursday, the bishop was acquitted of a charge spanning Dec. 17, 2010, to Feb. 10, 2011, because Jackson County Judge John M. Torrence said there was no evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Finn knew about the pornographic photos.

The charge on which Finn was convicted involved a period from Feb. 11 to May 11, 2011. Finn sent Ratigan to stay at a convent in Independence, Mo., during that time and ordered him to stay away from children and avoid taking photos. Prosecutors said that showed Finn knew about accusations against Ratigan, and Judge Torrence agreed.

Finn argued he should not face charges because he was not the diocese's mandated reporter under the law. At the time, the responsibility rested mainly with Vicar General Robert Murphy.

A computer technician found child pornography on Ratigan's laptop in December 2010 and reported it to the diocese. Of the hundreds of images found, many focused on the crotch areas of clothed children and one series showed the exposed genitals of a girl believed to be 3 or 4 years old.

Finn has acknowledged he was told in December 2010 about the images. The bishop also has acknowledged that a parochial school principal had raised concerns about Ratigan's behavior around children in May 2010.

State law requires that the Division of Family Services be informed of such evidence of abuse.

Murphy confronted Ratigan about the photos, and the next day, Ratigan was found in his garage with his motorcycle running and a suicide note that apologized for any harm he had caused. Ratigan recovered after being hospitalized.

Finn sent Ratigan out of state for a psychological examination, and then ordered him to stay at the convent.

Later, after the diocese received reports Ratigan had attended a St. Patrick's Day parade and a child's birthday party, Finn ordered that police be given copies of the photos recovered from Ratigan's laptop.

Ratigan pleaded guilty last month to federal charges of producing and attempting to produce child pornography, admitting to taking photos of children 2 to 9 years old. Prosecutors said they will request that he spend the rest of his life in prison. A sentencing date has not been set.

"I think that this is an amazing outcome, getting a bishop convicted of anything," Kansas City attorney Rebecca Randles said of Finn's conviction. Randles is representing a dozen of Ratigan's victims in civil lawsuits.

"Of course we wish the diocese was also convicted, but we understand the process and how it works," she added.

Since 2002, when the abuse scandal erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has spent tens of millions of dollars on child safety, including employee background checks and training for teachers and others on identifying abuse. Dioceses nationwide have removed hundreds of clergy who had been accused of molestation and barred them from any church work.

Finn's lack of action to address Ratigan, even as the larger church moved to implement reforms, frustrated Missouri parishioners and prompted some to call for Finn's resignation.

Finn had been scheduled for a jury trial starting Sept. 24. But prosecutors and Finn's defense team surprised the court by agreeing to a set of stipulated facts, negotiated by both sides, that were presented to the judge before Thursday.

Torrence conducted a bench trial, hearing brief opening statements Thursday before recessing to consider his verdict, which came about an hour after the trial's start. No witnesses or other evidence was presented.

While still damaging to Finn and the diocese, the trial and conviction before the judge - instead of a jury - averted weeks of potentially embarrassing evidence about what Finn and others did or didn't do to address Ratigan's problem.

"The advantages of the process we used was that all of the victims and the victims' families were spared a very trying process," Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said. "These victims' families - and I've spoken with many, many of them about today's case - they were all ecstatic that this could end today, with their child's anonymity protected."

Finn's attorneys, in a statement given to reporters after the trial, said having the judge hear and decide the case "avoided the need for live testimony from diocesan employees, parishioners and others."

"This could have been a lengthy and emotionally difficult trial for all persons affected," they said.

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