Diocese's 'new action plan' is a tired, well-used script

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Since the arrest of Fr. Shawn Ratigan May 19 on charges of possessing child pornography, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph Chancery Office has virtually gushed apologetic words and resolve to do better in the future. Bishop Robert Finn has met with parishioners, priests, the press and he's issued news releases that breathlessly promise new initiatives, ask for help and contain even more apologies.

Unfortunately, there is nothing new to the scenario unfolding in Kansas City.

This is the hierarchical/chancery culture reading off a familiar basic script that has been used countless times, albeit with numerous variations. Editors and reporters here have seen this time and again in the more than 26 years this paper has been covering the sex abuse scandal. The script's aim is to deflect the gaze from the central problem, using words and gestures that give the impression of going about important work to get to the bottom of things, all with a heavy heart.

The only truly astounding element in this most recent chapter is that this many years into the worst scandal the church has faced in modern times, with shelves of books and endless file drawers of documents and articles available to attest to its nature and causes, a bishop would have to resort to the script yet again.

The latest release produced by the chancery is titled: "Bishop Finn Initiates Sweeping Changes and Reviews." Under that is a subhead, "Five-Point Plan in Effect," and in an even smaller italicized subhead, "Diocese engages Todd Graves, former U.S. Department of Justice child exploitation expert and former U.S. Attorney."

An earlier memorandum to chancery staff told of how the bishop mandated a reaffirmation of "current policies and procedures," and is requiring all priests, deacons, parish and school staff members and chancery employees to review relevant documents and attend a new round of workshops "to strengthen our awareness and practice."

One can get the impression at first glance that the good bishop has taken charge of his diocese and is intent on setting things right, mandating that all of those who might have failed or been culpable in what he terms "serious lapses in communication" go to re-education camp and get it right this time.

As well intended and remorseful as Bishop Finn might be in all this new busy-ness, in reality the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph really doesn't need a new action plan, nor does it need to hire new experts. What it is attempting to create is a new story to divert attention from what actually happened. Alas, there's no mystery to what happened or where the failure lies.

Let's review the record:

On May 19, 45-year-old Fr. Ratigan was arrested for possession of child pornography.

It was immediately revealed that diocesan officials knew that his personal computer had been found months before, in December, to contain many "up skirt" photographs of young children, some as young as 3 or 4 and others of girls under the age of 12, including at least one of a nude girl.

The photos were discovered by a computer technician after the priest took it in for repairs. The technician, apparently understanding that he had discovered inappropriate images, handed the computer over to church officials after telling them what he had found.

The next day the priest was found unconscious in his closed garage with his motorcycle running. A suicide note was found in his residence.

The diocese did not contact police. Instead, officials made copies of the photos and gave the computer to Ratigan's family, who destroyed it.

Ratigan was subsequently assigned to a convent under restrictions outlined by Finn. The bishop said he handed the photos over to police last month when he became aware that Ratigan was violating some of the restrictions he had placed on him. He said he learned Ratigan had attended events where there were children.

Police said a subsequent investigation uncovered more child pornography. Asked why the diocese had not given the photos over sooner, diocesan officials said they initially consulted legal counsel and then "took appropriate steps based on the facts as we knew them."

A week after the arrest it was revealed that a full year before, the diocese had been given a four-and-a-half page, single-spaced letter detailing the concerns of the principal and teachers regarding Ratigan's behavior around children at the parish school. The letter is loaded with the kind of warning signs and "red flags" that lay church workers have become aware of in the programs they are required to attend in order to work in church settings around children.

Finn said he was verbally informed of the letter by his vicar general but had not actually read it until after Ratigan was arrested.

The point should be clear. What is in place worked. The principal and other lay employees were well-educated regarding the protection of children. They knew instinctively, and as they were taught, that something wasn't right. Ratigan's behavior around children -- encouraging youngsters to reach into his pockets for candy, massaging the backs of elementary school girls, swinging them over his head when they were wearing only uniform skirts, constantly photographing them -- made the other adults at the school and some parents extremely uncomfortable. The school personnel clearly stated their concerns, outlined in meticulous detail, in a letter to diocesan officials. Principal Julie Hess then got up the courage to take the damning evidence about a priest to the chancery office. Nothing was done.

The failure was at the level of bishop and vicar general. Everything else worked. It isn't lay teachers and principals who need a remedial course in protecting children. They knew precisely what was required of them and they took the necessary steps.

They may not have documented criminal behavior, but they laid out a bill of particulars regarding creepy behavior -- including the warnings of a number of parents -- that should have resulted at least in the immediate removal of Ratigan as pastor with easy access to children.

When Ratigan's superiors became aware of evidence of criminal behavior, they should have immediately turned it over to the police. A convent is not an appropriate holding pen for someone who could reasonably be suspected as being a danger to children. Did Finn and his staff expect to keep Ratigan sequestered for life? What was their plan?

In his own defense, Finn said that he didn't act immediately because Ratigan was popular with a lot of people and the diocese has a priest shortage. A cursory review of the abundant available literature on the matter would have shown Finn that priests who have abused or exploited children have almost all been popular and even charming people. Further, children shouldn't be placed in jeopardy because the church has difficulty filling the clerical ranks.

The diocese doesn't need any new programs or law enforcement experts. It merely needs to follow the rules already promulgated at the national level of the church and to exercise common sense. Kansas City, Mo., has a fine police department and quite capable investigators. But they need to be informed of crime when it occurs. Handing over evidence to be destroyed or giving police evidence five months after the fact is not acting responsibly in the matter of protecting children.

The Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese should be applauding the actions of lay staffers who followed the new directives and their consciences, not subjecting them to further scrutiny. They apparently understood exactly what to do.

The latest news release from the diocese contains a repetition of Finn's apology, and it begins: "As bishop, I take full responsibility for these failures …"

The question that hangs in the air is: "What, precisely, does he mean when he says that?"

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is troberts@ncronline.org.]

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