Over the past several of weeks, the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue has pulled out all the stops on behalf of Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn, who was indicted in Jackson County last month for failing to report suspicion of child abuse by one of his priests. Donohue has attacked the prosecutor who brought the case, the newspaper that reported on it, the abuse victims’ organization that has emphasized its importance, and the family that filed a related civil suit. He has journeyed to the City of Fountains to “energize the Catholic community in defense of” its bishop.
Why is Donohue so determined to demonstrate that Finn has been unjustly charged in the matter of Fr. Shawn Ratigan, who in August was indicted by a federal grand jury on 13 counts of abusing five young girls? In response to my criticism of his defense of Finn, Donohue referred me to an essay by Missouri lawyer Michael Quinlan that was posted on the EWTN website November 10. Relying on the factual record provided in the August 31 report on the Ratigan affair made by former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves, Quinlan argues that the law Finn is charged with breaking does not apply to the circumstances of the case, and that therefore: “The prosecutor’s overzealous misuse of that law in these circumstances violates
constitutional due process protections and denies rights to fundamental
fairness.” I’m not persuaded.
Quinlan insists that the lack of an “identifiable victim…renders the indictment erroneous and exonerates Bishop Finn from the criminal charges.” But contrary to what he claims, the Missouri statute does not “plainly contemplate” an identifiable victim–or require that such a victim actually come forward as a complainant. It merely requires that there be reasonable cause to suspect that “a child has been or may be subjected to
abuse or neglect.” Moreover, the federal indictment lists five evidently identifiable “Jane Does” as victims.
The Graves report itself expressly addresses the reason why, in the case of the most disturbing evidence in the case, Finn’s excuse for not informing his own Independent Review Board (“because there was no identifiable victim”) doesn’t wash.
Obviously, however, subjects such as the two to three year old child in the nude photograph were in no position to make a complaint. The nature of the photographs, combined with the fact that no one had ruled out the possibility that Fr. Ratigan, an avid and frequent photographer, had taken some of them, gave rise to at least a suspicion of child abuse that should have been investigated.
This, of course, is the basis for Finn’s subsequent indictment.
One could go on. In his attacks, Donohue repeatedly declares that “none” of the photographic images found on Ratigan’s computer was pornographic. But in fact, the Graves report concludes the opposite (pp. 95-96)–specifically, that some of the photos meet the standard of “lascivious exhibition of the genitals” defined in Missouri law as constituting child pornography.
Here it’s important to be aware of the nature of the most disturbing photos. Discovered by diocesan information systems manager Julie Creech, these were contained in a computer folder with an undisclosed name (the victim’s?) on it.
The first showed a little girl, face visible, standing and holding a blanket. In a “staged sequence,” the photos depicted a girl lying in a bed, from the waist down, and focused on the crotch. The girl was wearing a diaper, but with each photo, the diaper was moved gradually to expose her genitals. By the last photo, her genitals were fully exposed. According to Ms. Creech, there were approximately six to eight pictures in this sequence of photos; two displayed fully exposed genitals and one displayed her fully exposed buttocks. The little girl’s face was not visible in the staged sequence, but due to her apparent physical size and the fact that the photos were in the same folder, Ms. Creech assumed the photos were of the same little girl whose face appeared in the initial picture.
It seems perverse to consider this staged toddler striptease show as anything but pornographic–or, for that matter, lacking an identifiable victim.
Although there is some question of exactly how knowledgeable Finn was of the photographic details, the Graves report says that Creech had informed the diocese’s Vicar General, Monsignor Robert Murphy, both verbally and in writing of what she had found; and that Murphy relayed the information to Finn. And Finn made clear in his interview for the Graves report that he had more than an inkling of what the photos signified. Asked why he did not inform the members of Ratigan’s parish of them when he reassigned the priest, he said it would have been “like yelling fire in a crowded theater.”
Under the circumstances, and given Finn’s previous knowledge of the principal’s letter of complaint, charging him with the misdemeanor of “Failure of a Mandated Reporter to Report” does not seem like a close call. The fact that the bishop last week agreed to participate in a diversion program in Clay County, all but admitting guilt rather than face a second state indictment, is sufficient evidence that his lawyers understand the weakness of his position.
So why would the Catholic League–formally independent of the Church but nevertheless closely connected to the hierarchy–go so far out of its way to mount a defense of Bishop Finn? As the first American bishop ever to be charged with covering up a child abuse case, Finn has become the poster boy for a new standard in the criminal justice system: When there’s a question of child abuse in the Catholic Church, it’s the bishop who bears responsibility for notifying the civil authorities. Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker has made an example of Finn. Donohue is doing everything in his power to dissuade other prosecutors from following it.