The resignation of Bishop Finn

by Michael Sean Winters

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The terseness of the Vatican's official statement on the resignation of Kansas City, Mo., Bishop Robert Finn was in direct proportion to its gravity. This morning, as I do every morning, I went to the Vatican website, clicked on the daily bulletin, then clicked on rinunce e nomine and found this:

Il Santo Padre Francesco ha accettato la rinuncia al governo pastorale della diocesi di Kansas City-Saint Joseph (U.S.A.), presentata da S.E. Mons. Robert W. Finn, in conformità al can. 401 § 2 del Codice di Diritto Canonico.

There it was. The long nightmare that has engulfed the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is over. The people of that diocese, whose numbers have shrunk by one quarter since Bishop Finn took the reins of the diocese in 2005, can now begin healing the wounds his leadership caused and, by the grace of God, rebuilding the once-vibrant local church.

This is no time for popping champagne. Everything about the situation -- Bishop Finn's authoritarian manner, his conviction for failing to report child sex abuse, the years of inaction by the Holy See -- is the stuff of tragedy. But it is tragedy of a specific kind. We say that a hurricane or a tornado, a force of nature or act of God that causes great harm and suffering, is a tragedy. But this is more of a Shakespearean tragedy in which the central character has a fatal flaw that, as the plot unfolds, brings about his ruin. In this case, the fatal flaw was hubris.

As my colleagues Joshua J. McElwee, Brian Roewe and Dennis Coday report, when Finn took the reins in Kansas City, he began sacking longtime staff, shut down offices he did not like, and vowed to increase vocations. As is typical of many Midwestern dioceses, Kansas City had a long tradition of lay involvement in the workings of the diocese, dating back before the Second Vatican Council and its emphasis on the priesthood of the baptized. That tradition was ignored. Lines were drawn between the culture of the Church and the ambient culture.

One wonders if +Finn was so isolated and insulated, he even knew how damaging his "bull in a china shop" methods were. Certainly, they did not build up the unity of the local Church, which must rank high on any bishop's list of priorities. But he did not reverse course. He did not begin consultations. He sought and received the advice of people who already agreed with him. The isolation grew. The disaffection increased. Any loss in energy or numbers could be blamed on the forces of the ambient secular culture, the lack of catechesis in the previous generation, the lack of forceful leadership by previous bishops.

This unwillingness to cultivate relationships with those whose views differed and consequent alienation from a large swath of his flock left Bishop Finn in a bad place to withstand the charges that emerged in the case of Fr. Shawn Ratigan. +Finn's mishandling of that situation led to his conviction in civil court of failing to report child sex abuse. He was the first bishop in the United States to be convicted of a crime related to his handling of a sex abuse charge. It must be said, however, that even if he had been the most popular bishop in the land, he could not have withstood the charges resulting from the Ratigan case. The people of God have concluded, rightly, that sexually abusing children is horrific, and if those in authority do not react with horror, they forfeit their right to lead the Church.

Many bishops mishandled clergy sex abuse charges in previous years, but in 2002, the bishops of the United States adopted a set of procedures and protocols, known as the Dallas Charter, that they promised would prevent future cover-ups. Whatever had happened in the past, they promised they had turned the page and such crimes, while not entirely preventable, would no longer be hidden by chancery officials, but turned over to civil authorities. A zero tolerance for the crime of sexually abusing children was adopted and policies on child protection put in place. But +Finn ignored the zero-tolerance mandate in the Ratigan case. He was above the law. Furthermore, one of the policies adopted at Dallas requires all Church employees and volunteers who work with children to go through a criminal background check to guarantee they had no prior conviction on child sex abuse charges. When +Finn was convicted in 2012, he could no longer have been allowed to teach Sunday school in his own diocese because he would have failed the required background check.

The situation was untenable. Everyone knew it. Everyone, that is, except Bishop Finn, who had two powerful patrons in Rome on the Congregation for Bishops, Cardinals Justin Rigali and Raymond Burke. It was Cardinal Rigali who promoted Finn up the ranks of the chancery in St. Louis, and it was Cardinal Burke who consecrated him a bishop. They shared the narrative that all the criticisms of Bishop Finn were simply the complaints of lax Catholics who resented having an orthodox bishop. They failed to recognize that the credibility of the entire U.S. hierarchy was on the line. They had collectively pledged that cover-ups would no longer be tolerated. A cover-up had happened. Where was the accountability?

Enter Pope Francis and Cardinal Sean O'Malley.

It is true that both as cardinal and later as pope, Benedict XVI began to address the issue of child sex abuse by clergy with appropriate fervor in stark contrast to the way the issue had been handled by Pope John Paul II. But he did not cross the bridge of episcopal accountability. That remained a bridge too far. Cardinal O'Malley, who has been the cavalry for the Church on this issue since 1992, when he was sent to Fall River, Mass., to clean up the mess left by the James Porter case, argued forcefully for the creation of a separate commission on child sex abuse at the Vatican. He had seen, in three dioceses, the ecclesial calvary child sex abuse causes. He understood that the credibility of the entire U.S. hierarchy was on the line. And through O'Malley's counsel, Pope Francis came to see it, too. And for Francis, episcopal accountability was not a bridge too far. This morning, he crossed that bridge.

This morning, it is important to isolate the crime of child sex abuse as uniquely horrific in the life of the Church in recent decades. But there are many ways to misgovern a diocese. In addition to the commission in Rome, what is most needed is a conversion of heart among bishops. The days when "never contradict a bishop" was taught to Vatican diplomats-in-training must be consigned to the past. The days when bishops think of themselves as accountable to no one but the pope must be consigned to the past. The days when aloofness could hide behind sloppy talk about liberal Catholics with bad catechesis must be consigned to the past. Bishops are sent to serve their people, and in selecting bishops, the Vatican must look for men who understand that service is the only type of leadership that can possess the credibility of Him who came not to be served but to serve.

A great sense of relief dawns. The page can be turned on a tragic episode. But there are lessons to be drawn from this morning's announcement, important lessons that will take time to process. Let the first lesson be this: Hubris is not governance or leadership. That Bishop Finn could not see this is the real cause of his resignation. The shockwaves will be intense. Many will claim that the Vatican caved. But in removing a bishop for his failure to abide by the rules the hierarchy set for themselves, Pope Francis has made a bold statement: We are all accountable to each other for the welfare of the Church. And that lesson can, and will, extend beyond cases of clergy sex abuse. 

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