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5 lessons from the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn (ANALYSIS)

Bishop Robert Finn, who resigned as head of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., was the only U.S. bishop to plead guilty to failing to report the suspected abuse of a child. Bishop Finn is pictured in a 2014 photo at the Vatican. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service
Bishop Robert Finn, who resigned as head of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., was the only U.S. bishop to plead guilty to failing to report the suspected abuse of a child. Bishop Finn is pictured in a 2014 photo at the Vatican. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

Bishop Robert Finn, who resigned as head of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., was the only U.S. bishop to plead guilty to failing to report the suspected abuse of a child. Bishop Finn is pictured in a 2014 photo at the Vatican. Photo by Paul Haring, courtesy of Catholic News Service

(RNS) When Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Missouri Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted three years ago for failing to report a priest suspected of child abuse, the pontiff sent a powerful message to the Catholic Church.

Here are five takeaways from the news, which the Vatican announced on Tuesday (April 21).

1. This is a big deal

During the past decade, the most intense years of the Catholic Church’s long-running clergy sex abuse scandal, thousands of priests have been punished or defrocked for abusing children, and a few bishops found guilty of molestation have also quit.

But until Finn, no American bishop had ever been forced from office (despite the terse Vatican announcement that he “resigned”) for covering up for a predator priest.

That sets a precedent in an institution where many have regarded the hierarchy as a privileged caste that should not be held to the same standards as others in the church. Some feared that if a bishop were pushed out for failing to do his job, it would create a domino effect that could topple the entire superstructure.

“We all know there are other U.S. bishops wondering ‘who is the next?’” tweeted church historian Massimo Faggioli.

But Francis seems to be betting this sort of accountability at the top will strengthen the church, and even help restore the credibility of the bishops.

2. Finn was an easy case

Finn is the only U.S. bishop ever convicted in court of failing to report a suspected abuser, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, who was later sentenced to 50 years on federal child pornography charges.

Ratigan had hundreds of lewd pictures of children from local parishes on his computer, and he attempted suicide when the diocese learned of them in 2010. But Finn waited six months to report Ratigan to authorities.

Finn pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in 2012 and was sentenced to two years’ probation after a legal battle that cost the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph millions of dollars.

In short, Finn was low-hanging fruit.

3. Francis had to take action

Locally, the diocese was a mess. Kansas City-St. Joseph had lost one-quarter of its members since Finn took over in 2005, and the past few years of scandal and financial outlays related to the abuse case had left Catholics deeply disillusioned.

Moreover, Francis’ credibility was on the line. While his predecessor, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, had taken steps to address abusive priests, Benedict hadn’t done much to hold bishops accountable. After a slow start in addressing the scandal following his March 2013 election, Francis eventually sent strong signals that bishops would no longer be protected.

Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, a top adviser to Francis and the American churchman with the greatest credibility on the abuse issue, also made it clear in recent months that accountability for bishops is a priority. He even took the step of publicly criticizing another bishop when he told “60 Minutes”  last fall that the Finn case needed to be addressed “urgently.”

The day before Finn’s resignation was announced, Marie Collins, an abuse victim from Ireland who is a member of the panel Francis established to address the abuse crisis, wondered “how anybody like that (Finn) could be left in charge of a diocese.”

sean o'malley

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley celebrates Sunday Mass with other American cardinals at the Pontifical North American College in 2013. Photo by Gregory L. Tracy/The Pilot

Francis was also facing strong criticism on his appointment of a bishop in Chile who allegedly knew about the predations of one of that country’s most notorious abusers.

Finally, Francis will be making his first visit to the U.S. in September, a highly anticipated trip to a key church in his global flock, and a place where Catholics have welcomed his new style as rapturously as anywhere. But it’s also a church whose members have been traumatized by the abuse scandal, which they see as a priority for the pope.

4. It’s all about the system, not the bishop

“Who’s next?” is the question many are asking. But a better question may be, “What’s next?”

Some believe Minnesota Archbishop John Nienstedt, another unpopular figure with a dodgy record on abuse and a tangle of legal and personal questions, could be forced to resign at some point. But picking off bishops one by one isn’t the point.

For one thing, there are few bishops in office today who have shielded predators the way bishops did in the past. That older generation has largely retired, and today’s bishops are quick to report suspected cases, which are much fewer in number. Also, the statute of limitations in most states has expired on the vast majority of cases, so it’s unlikely there would be many bishops subject to criminal charges like Finn was.

The key is setting up a system for investigating and disciplining bishops that would work for prelates around the world, not just in the U.S.; it can’t be a matter of targeting one bishop or another.

Following up on his “60 Minutes” interview, O’Malley also stressed that the Catholic Church needs a system of due process that holds all bishops accountable and must “avoid crowd-based condemnations.”

A process will be more effective, and credible, than one-off firings. “Things are moving slowly as I have said many times but they are moving in the right direction!” as Marie Collins tweeted Tuesday (April 21) after hearing news of Finn’s resignation.

Collins said this week a plan for hierarchical accountability is on Francis’ desk now.

5. It’s another hit for U.S. conservatives

Finn’s resignation is yet another hit for Catholic conservatives who have been reeling since Francis was elected and began reorienting the Catholic Church away from a few hot-button issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Finn had been hailed as a strong conservative who would help turn the church away from any liberal tendencies, and the steps he took to do that alienated many Catholics in his diocese. Even after his conviction, conservative apologists such as William Donohue of the Catholic League forcefully defended Finn and argued that the bishop was being targeted because he was so traditional.

Bishop of Spokane, Blase Cupich, welcomes Fast for Families on March 6, 2013, during an evening community meeting at Gonzaga University.

Photo courtesy of Fast 4 Families via Flickr

Bishop of Spokane, Blase Cupich, welcomes Fast for Families on March 6, 2013, during an evening community meeting at Gonzaga University.

That theory isn’t operative any longer. Finn is 62 and could have served until he was 75. He had been a favorite of former Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali and the former archbishop of St. Louis, Cardinal Raymond Burke, until recently a top Vatican official.

But both Rigali and Burke have been sidelined, and now Finn is out — he remains a bishop but there is no word what he will do now. And Francis is promoting men like Archbishop Blase Cupich, a hero to moderate and progressive Catholics who last fall succeeded Chicago Cardinal Francis George.

George, a hero to conservative Catholics, died last week after a long battle with cancer. His funeral is set for Thursday.

YS/MG END GIBSON

About the author

David Gibson

David Gibson is a national reporter for RNS and an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He has written several books on Catholic topics. His latest book is on biblical artifacts: "Finding Jesus: Faith. Fact. Forgery," which was also the basis of a popular CNN series.

37 Comments

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  • First lesson: No bishop gets thrown under the bus until this pope needs another PR boost. The pope has been taking much deserved criticism for appointing Juan Barros as bishop in Chile after three victims of child abuse said Barros was complicit in their abuse and later covered it up. Not only did Chileans petition the pope not to appoint him, but there was a near riot during his installation mass.
    Second lesson: Sex abuse is not a conservative/liberal issue so the pope is safe in maintaining his perfect record with conservatives by not changing a thing since his election while his US bishops continue funding and directing the campaigns to obstruct Obamacare and same-sex marriage advances.

  • I SAY THIS AS A FORMER DEVOUT CATHOLIC:

    The church is a criminal organization.
    25,000 cases of pedophilia over 40 years
    and those are only the ones we know about!

    Everyone connected with the Catholic church is complicit in this evil if they have not done something to uncover and prosecute the criminal deeds of this gang of rapists.

    So far, POPE FRANCIS has protected CARDINAL BERNIE LAW, The kingpin of the Boston Priest Pedophile Network who lives in a fancy suite of rooms at the Vatican!

    May the church be abandoned and die off in disgrace and shame.

  • you should read a book by Karen Liebreich entitled “Fallen Order”. It’s a documented study showing the abuse, and the coverup by the bishops who knew about it.

  • Yes there have been horrible clerics in the Church, about 1-2% of the clergy. I question what about the 5-12% of teachers in public schools?

  • You are correct Jens, our media is quick to strike with venomous blows at the Catholic Church for the 1-2% of its priests who were involved in these heinous crimes, but continue to turn a blind eye to the same filthy trash that have done vile deeds in the Public School System USA. And yes, the percentage of bad priests pales in comparison to the same issue in the Public Schools.

  • Greg and Jens, you both would do well to use your favorite search engine on the phrase “two wrongs don’t make a right”. Furthermore, while those actions by persons in the school system are heinous, it is the priests who are claimed to be agents of a perfect god. Looks like your god can’t control his agents very well, or your god has a pretty poor sense of good and evil That’s some god ya got goin there…

    Get on it, boys! Go get that search engine revving… Jump on those keys!

  • Whether it’s Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Islamic, or other, religion is getting a bad press for very good reasons. Little wonder that the general public is turning away from religion in ever greater numbers.

  • I can’t help but wonder: is it possible for David Gibson to write anything that doesn’t end up being about ideology? Cardinal George dies, “Conservative” is all Gibson could see, in one word equating him with the likes of Burke. George was both/and, just like Catholicism. Now, “this is a blow to conservatives.” It might feel like victory to Gibson, but it comes off like spite and malice, and HOW DOES IT HELP? It doesn’t. Enough. Grow up. Stop with the pathetic, adolescent, divisive language of ideology which really does not apply! Gibson seems unable to help himself. It’s sad. And it makes for tiresome reading.

  • Religion must die off faster.

    Who needs these madmen in fancy outfits
    making empty claims about reality and taking advantage of poor people who don’t know better?

  • Clarence, I should cite a scripture verse for you: “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?” Matt 7:3. What the Good Lord is saying here is equal measures for all. If you want to pick out the 1-2% of filthy priests/bishops in the Catholic Church, then you should cite the 10+% filth in the Public Schools. If it’s about the kids, then we should be broadcasting it ALL from the hilltops; if it’s only political gaming, then what we are getting should be ignored.

  • dont you think priest and the rest of the clergy should be held to a more rigorous standard……Jesus did “to him who is given much, much is expected.” Paul did to “Dont you know that teachers will be judged more harshly.”

  • Jens, you are spot on about the numbers and the disproportional number of priests sexually abusing their young flock and what seems like a daily revelation about 25 year old teachers sleeping with their 14 year old students.

    I respectfully point out that while the numbers don’t add up what is different is the modus operandi of the two governing institutions. When a teacher is found guilty of sexual misconduct they are immediately thrown to the law and legal officials, terminated and if not sent to prison compelled to register as sex offenders for life. When a priest has been accused, the Bishops immediately, as we have seen, obfuscate, prevaricate, shuffle the offender around and do a legal dance in order to protect themselves and the Church.

    We are in the greatest moral and spiritual crisis since the Protestant Reformation and to equate public school sex crimes with the criminal nature of the Church’s handling of the current scandal is, to say the least, oversimplifying.

  • Jens — Although I would question your figures, I think the difference is that the public school system is not leveraging its centuries-old power over humanity to cover up and protect the criminals. It seems that when a teacher is found to be perpetrating abuse, the justice and public humiliation tends to be swift and sure. Besides the criminal acts themselves, it was the church’s policies of denial and protection that needed to be corrected.

  • Greg, copy-pasta scripture doesn’t impress me one iota.

    Don’t be lazy. Do the search. Read up. On it, boy!

  • Fran it is your False Religion that is not of JEHOVAH that will bring you Hell on Earth in the end. You have only earthy hopes and no HEAVEN in your False Religion.

  • Clarence, I have clearly and repeatedly said that any priest or bishop who has been involved in these despicable crimes, should be thrown in jail, and defrocked. Likewise, any Public School Teacher who has done the same needs to be fired and sent to jail. Your problem, however, is that in your mind apparently two wrongs don’t seem to equal two wrongs. And I will repeat: if we are doing this for the children, then ALL filthy dirty abusers need to be shamed publicly, fired, and sent to jail. And it doesn’t end with Public Schools, there are daycare centers, foster homes, reformatories, among others.

  • Then why are you making so many excuses for the scrutiny the church has drawn here? You bring up public schools simply to make phony claims that they are somehow worse in how such situations are handled. All done to make the Church’s abominable handling of the situation somehow more excusable or look less bad.

    If you had such categorical condemnation of child abuse, then you would not have tried to divert the conversation towards discussion of media portrayals or other institutions. You would address the issue on its own facts and not try such irrelevant arguments.

    “And it doesn’t end with Public Schools, there are daycare centers, foster homes, reformatories, among others.”

    And if the topic was them, it would be relevant to bring up abuse there. But in this article it is not. Your reference to them is simply a smokescreen and cheap excuses.

  • Larry, I have never once attempted to justify any filthy priest or bishop regarding the sex abuse scandal. I have repeatedly said they are to be removed, and jailed. I only wish the press would be as open & accusing in ALL cases of pedophilia, in every quarter of society. The problem I have is the finger pointing is singly targeted. To me the sooner the slime is ousted from the Church, the better. But I don’t want these fools to just go to another place to do their dirty business. They need to be exposed, and wearing permanent ankle bracelets. The job of the press is to expose ALL, not just a select group.

  • So, in your mind, you can say, “They did it too, and worse, and that’s your defense?” Compare the hierarchy to the world, and find the world wanting. What hypocrisy! Without the silent collusion of the priests and laypersons in positions of responsibility throughout the church, none of this could have happened.

  • Shouldn’t Pope Francis be addressed as Pope Francis at all times, not just as Francis? I felt it was disrespectful in this article. Just sayin’.

  • I haven’t researched the latest figures, but two or three years ago it was published that the number of reported abuse cases by priests in the United States for 2010 was six. That, of course, is six too many, but it was also a tiny fraction of a percentage of priests in the USA. The quoted 2% or so relates to the height of clerical sexual abuse, which was 20 or more years ago.

  • I don’t even consider psychology a real science, but it’s obvious even to me that a person who seriously plans a celibate life is mentally bent.

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