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US Bishop Finn, symbol of church's failure on sexual abuse, resigns

  • Bishop Robert Finn in his office in 2007 (CNS/Catholic Key/Kevin Kelly)
  • Jackson Country, Mo., prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, center, announces the indictments of Bishop Robert Finn and the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese in an Oct. 14, 2011, news conference. (NCR photo/Zoe Ryan)
Vatican City and Kansas City, Mo.

U.S. Bishop Robert Finn, the Catholic prelate in the U.S. heartland who became a symbol internationally of the church's failures in addressing the sexual abuse crisis, has resigned. He was the first bishop criminally convicted of mishandling an abusive priest yet remained in office for another two and a half years.

The Vatican announced Finn's resignation as head of the diocese of St. Joseph-Kansas City, Mo., in a note in its daily news bulletin Tuesday.

While the note did not provide any reason for the move, it is rare for bishops in the Catholic church to resign without cause before they reach the traditional retirement age of 75.

Finn, who is 62 and had led the diocese since 2005, was neither assigned a new diocese nor as yet given a new leadership role in the church.

Other than for reasons of health, only one other bishop among the some 200 U.S. Catholic dioceses and eparchies has resigned his role in such a manner in at least the past decade.

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Tuesday's Vatican note read: "The Holy Father Francis has accepted the resignation from the pastoral government of the diocese of St. Joseph-Kansas City, Mo. (U.S.A.) presented by His Excellency Msgr. Robert W. Finn."

The announcement cites the portion in the Code of Canon Law that states that a bishop who "has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office."

Francis has not named a replacement as bishop of the diocese.

While the Vatican bulletin does not indicate whether the pope appointed an apostolic administrator for the diocese, Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocesan director of communications Jack Smith said in a statement that Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., was named as the diocese's administrator.

In a letter to addressed to the people of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese, Naumann asked for prayers, acknowledging the "vitality and beauty" of the community but also stating "I am also keenly conscious of some of challenges and difficulties this Diocese has suffered in recent years." He added that the role of an administrator, by its definition, "is for a very short season."

"This will not be a time for innovation or change, but a time to sustain the ordinary and essential activities of the Church and where possible to advance the initiatives that already are under way," Naumann said. 

Naumann said he hoped the coming months would be "a time of grace and healing for the Diocese."

Finn's resignation will have significance beyond the borders of Missouri. The issue of holding bishops accountable has long been the largest and most provocative unresolved element in the church's handling of sexual abuse cases.

In diocese after diocese and country after country, abuse victims, parents and advocacy groups have asked why bishops who inappropriately handle dangerous priests are rarely, if ever, held accountable.

Finn's leadership has long been under question in the Missouri diocese, at least since his September 2012 conviction of a misdemeanor count of failing to report suspected child abuse in the case of a now-former diocesan priest who was producing child pornography.

Because of that incident, Finn served a two-year suspended sentence in Jackson County, Mo., and struck a deal later that year with a Clay County, Mo., judge to avoid a similar charge by entering a diversion compliance agreement that included regular meetings with the county prosecutor for five years.

Local Catholics began calling for Finn's resignation in May 2011. An online petition asking for the Vatican to remove Finn was opened in 2012 and gathered more than 260,000 signatures.

In February 2014, Kansas City Catholics engaged a canon lawyer and made a formal request that the Vatican initiate a penal process to determine whether Finn violated church law in the case of Shawn Ratigan, a then-priest of the diocese convicted of child pornography charges, whom Finn failed to report to civil authorities.

In September 2014, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, Ontario, came to Kansas City for a Vatican investigation known as an apostolic visitation to interview more than a dozen people as part of an investigation into Finn's leadership.

Prendergast told those he interviewed from Sept. 22-26 that he was there on behalf of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops.

Smith said in a brief interview Tuesday that Finn had met with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for Bishops, April 14 in Rome. The bishop, Smith said, then spoke with U.S. apostolic nuncio Archbishop Carlo Vigano on Monday, at which final details of the resignation were determined.

There "probably were conversations that went on all the way up to yesterday about when or how this transition would take place," Smith said.

The overlap of Finn's Rome visit with a meeting of the new Vatican commission on clergy sexual abuse on April 12 was a "kind of coincidence," Smith said.

Members of that commission, known formally as the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, met April 12 with Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley, the president of the commission and a member of Francis' Council of Cardinals.

Commission member Peter Saunders said in an interview Tuesday that the members discussed Finn's case at the meeting.

"I believe that there was already some movement on the Finn case, from what Cardinal O'Malley said, so I think this was going to happen," Saunders said. "But maybe we were in some small way instrumental in ensuring that it did."

While the Vatican bulletin does not say Finn was removed from office (instead, it says the pope accepted his resignation), such moves are still rare in the church.

The last Catholic prelate to be removed from diocesan office was Paraguayan Bishop Rogelio Ricardo Livieres Plano, whom Francis removed in September mainly over accusations that he had not adequately managed his diocese and had caused strife with other prelates.

The last U.S. bishop who resigned at such an early age was former Scranton, Pa., Bishop Joseph Martino, who resigned in 2009 at age 63 mainly over concerns that he was mismanaging and was divisive in his diocese.

Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the former archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh, Scotland, who resigned in 2013 after admitting to sexual misconduct, on March 20 resigned "the rights and privileges of a cardinal." Those include advising the pope, holding membership in Vatican congregations and councils, and electing a new pope.

The news of Finn's resignation was met with relief in Kansas City.

"It has been a hard time, a painful time for our diocese," said Fr. Michael Roach, a priest of more than 30 years in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese.

"In this Easter time, a time of new life, we are grateful that our diocese will be able to begin a time of healing and coming together," Roach told NCR.

The diocese's struggles had caused discontent and concern even among some of Finn's highest-ranking officials, with one saying in an interview recently that after the bishop's departure, the diocese would need concerted efforts focused on healing.

Jude Huntz, who served as the diocese's second-in-command from 2011 until August 2014, said Finn's successor would have to "take on the task to bring healing for everybody involved."

"I think that's what everybody needs the most," Huntz said. "It's been painful for everybody. I don't think anybody has been exempt. It's been a hard thing for everybody to endure."

The former chancellor of the diocese also said healing efforts could not be led by just one individual.

"Everybody has got to kind of come together in some sort of a liturgical and communal way just to bring healing," he said. "This isn't just about sex abuse. This is about a whole lot of other things that are ideological."

May would have marked Finn's 10th anniversary as bishop in Kansas City.

Pressure on Finn to resign began in the spring of 2011, when it became public that diocesan officials had months before found suspect photographs of children on a computer owned by Ratigan, then the pastor of St. Patrick Parish in North Kansas City, Mo., but had not contacted civil authorities.

In January 2011, Finn removed Ratigan as pastor and sent him for evaluation and counseling. But by late winter, Ratigan was assigned as a chaplain to a sisters' convent and to live with a group of Vincentian priests in a suburb east of Kansas City.

There was no known supervision of Ratigan, and he remained in contact with families from his former parishes, attending family gatherings and meals. It was later learned that Ratigan used these occasions to take images of children using his cellphone, some of them questionable.

Ratigan was found guilty in federal court in September 2013 of producing child pornography and sentenced to 50 years in jail. He was laicized in January 2014.

Questions about Finn's handling of the Ratigan case emerged during the Prendergast investigation, according to Fr. Pat Rush, pastor at Visitation Parish in Kansas City.

Rush, who was interviewed as part of the apostolic visitation in September, told NCR that the Canadian archbishop asked how the accusations against Ratigan were handled, what legal advice was given, and the fallout from the conviction.

The costs of Finn's legal defense totaled $1.39 million, the diocesan paper reported in 2012. At that time, the diocese had spent nearly $4 million for other clergy sexual abuse claims.

In March 2014, an arbiter ruled the diocese had violated five of 19 child safety measures it agreed to as part of a 2008 settlement that awarded $10 million to 47 plaintiffs. In August of that year, a Jackson County circuit judge upheld the arbiter's decision that the diocese pay $1.1 million for breaching the terms.

"There can be no doubt that the diocese, through its leadership and higher-level personnel, failed in numerous respects to abide by the terms," Jackson County Circuit Judge Bryan E. Round said in his decision then.

In October, the diocese resolved all its outstanding historical sexual abuse claims through a $9.95 million global settlement of 30 cases -- including one which had progressed to final statements in trial.

At the time, the diocese said only one case related to Ratigan was still pending.

The cumulative amount spent by the diocese on sexual abuse claims and defense is a "staggering figure," Huntz, the former diocesan chancellor, told NCR in September. "[The Vatican] needs to see those numbers and recognize it for what it is."

Huntz also said that to offset expenses, the diocese had raised parish assessments -- the money the diocese collects from parishes -- with some "going up 33 percent." Huntz attributed higher operating costs to increased insurance payments.

"A parish can't afford those things," he said. "It's really hurting a lot of the parishes from a financial point of view."

While the pope is considered the supreme earthly authority in the Catholic church, canon law does not specify by name his ability to fire or remove diocesan bishops. It instead says that "privation" of office can be "made known to the bishop."

Highlighting that sensitive area of law, the Vatican bulletin announcing Livieres Plano's removal said Francis had "provided for the alternation of the bishop" of the Paraguayan diocese.

An Australian bishop removed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011, William Morris, was not said to have been removed from or have resigned his office, but instead to have accepted retirement.

News of the $1.1 million judgment against the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese prompted another letter to Pope Francis requesting an investigation of Finn.

Fr. James Connell, a Milwaukee canon lawyer who had helped local Catholics write to the Vatican in February 2014, wrote again in August of that year.

"It just struck me that it would be wise to get it documented that further court actions confirmed Finn being wrong with the way he handled things and the church really ought to be doing something about that," Connell told NCR then.

 

 

The Ratigan case

The day after Ratigan's arrest May 19, 2011, Finn held a meeting with parents of St. Patrick's parish to address the situation and hear their concerns. It was an event that pointed to the ongoing feeling of many parents in the diocese, who expressed anger at the bishop's inaction.

Standing alone at the lectern next to the parish altar for just under three hours, Finn fielded questions as mother after mother, father after father, lined up to ask why the priest was not brought to the police when the diocese first knew of his troubles the December before.

Several parishioners asked how they could ever trust Finn, or even the Catholic church, again.

One, a woman who identified herself as a member of the parish for over 10 years, recounted how she had seen Ratigan tickling young children at the school's daycare program.

"As soon as you knew what was going on, why the hell didn't you tell me something?" she asked, her voice shaking.

"When a priest becomes our priest, he becomes a part of our family. And this family deserves to know what is going on in this church."

The full details of how Finn and the Kansas City diocese responded to reports about Ratigan's behavior became part of the public record in 2012.

As part of the nonjury trial at which Finn was found guilty of failing to report suspected child abuse, both the prosecutors and defense lawyers submitted a set of 69 mutually agreed-upon facts that formed a timeline of the diocese's handling of the Ratigan case.

Many of the facts are graphic. Key points among them included:

  • The diocese had received a memo in May 2010 concerning Ratigan from Julie Hess, the principal of the school attached to the parish Ratigan was serving. That memo outlined several concerns about the priest and stated teachers at the school thought "Father Shawn's actions fit the profile of a child predator."
  • Following examination by a computer technician, the diocese became aware of a number of lewd photos on Ratigan's laptop on Dec. 16, 2010. Among those photos were those of a "little girl's naked vagina." Included in those who saw those photos was Msgr. Robert Murphy, then the diocese's vicar general.
  • Ratigan attempted suicide on Dec. 17, 2010, leaving behind a note that said, "I am sorry for the harm caused to the children."
  • In early January 2011, Finn sent Ratigan to Pennsylvania for psychiatric evaluation from Rick Fitzgibbons, who told Finn in an email that Hess "may have orchestrated false accusations" against Ratigan.
  • Following Ratigan's return from Pennsylvania, Finn assigned Ratigan to live at a community of religious priests and assigned him to say daily Mass for a community of women religious.
  • Finn received an email from Ratigan on Feb. 7, 2011, that began: "I am going to give you a brief summary of how I got to where I am with my addiction to pornography."
  • Finn emailed Ratigan in response Feb. 9, 2011, giving the priest seven restrictions, including to "avoid all contact with children."
  • Finn was informed March 31, 2011, that Ratigan had attended a St. Patrick's Day parade and a birthday party for a sixth-grade girl.
  • On May 11, 2011, Murphy reported the existence of "hundreds of photographs" of children on Ratigan's computer to police.
  • Ratigan was arrested for possession of child pornography May 18, 2011.

The stipulated facts also state that in testimony, Murphy reported the incident to police because he thought the diocese's response to Ratigan was "moving along with no direction, and I thought, 'I have got to do something.' "

According to the facts, Murphy also testified that Finn was "upset" upon hearing Murphy had reported Ratigan. According to the testimony, Murphy told his sister at the time, "I think I made a decision that will not make the bishop happy."

Finn has rarely addressed the Ratigan situation in public after the May 2011 meeting with parents. He has not given an interview in years.

Seen walking near the Vatican in Rome April 14, the bishop shook hands pleasantly -- but quickly walked away once introductions had been made.

Beginning with a clean sweep

Finn came to the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese as a coadjutor bishop in March 2004.

He was then a 53-year-old St. Louis priest and member of the conservative Opus Dei movement. He had served as a high school principal and oversaw the St. Louis archdiocesan newspaper.

Finn succeeded Bishop Raymond Boland as the diocese's leader on May 24, 2005. Within a week of his appointment, he:

  • Dismissed the chancellor, a layman with 21 years of experience in the diocese; the vice chancellor, a religious woman stationed in the diocese for nearly 40 years; and the chief of pastoral planning for the diocese since 1990. He replaced them with a priest chancellor.
  • Canceled the diocese's nationally renowned lay formation programs and a master's degree program in pastoral ministry.
  • Halved the budget of the Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry, effectively forcing the almost immediate resignation of half the seven-member team. Within 10 months, all seven would be gone and the center shuttered.
  • Ordered a "zero-based study" of adult catechesis in the diocese and appointed as vice chancellor to oversee adult catechesis, lay formation and the catechesis study a layman with no formal training in theology or religious studies.
  • Ordered the editor of the diocesan newspaper to immediately cease publishing columns by Notre Dame theologian Fr. Richard McBrien and announced he would review all front-page stories, opinion pieces, columns and editorials before publication.

By most accounts, Finn reached these decisions without consulting any of the senior leadership of the diocese or the people in the programs affected. Virtually no staff at the diocesan headquarters knew of the changes until they were announced at a news conference two days after his appointment.

Many parish staff members and priests would first learn of the changes when they read about them in the local or diocesan newspaper.

As his first year in office unfolded and as budgets were prepared for a new fiscal year, the new bishop's priorities emerged.

Budgets for the peace and justice office and Bolivian missions were cut in half and more. A diocesan-sponsored master's program was transferred from the Aquinas Institute of Theology, a Dominican school affiliated with Jesuit-run St. Louis University, to the Institute for Pastoral Theology at Florida-based Ave Maria University.

A Latin Mass community, which had been using a city parish for liturgies, was given a parish in its own right, and Finn appointed himself pastor. Later, he asked the parish that the Latin Mass community would be leaving to donate $250,000 of the estimated $1.5 million the Latin group needed to renovate the old church Finn gave them.

NCR documented Finn's first year in office in a 2006 cover story titled "Extreme makeover."

The new bishop "came with an agenda," Fr. Richard Carney told NCR in 2006. Carney was then a priest of more than 50 years and a respected leader in the diocese. He died in 2008.

"[Finn] didn't ask us who we are and what we are about," Carney told NCR. "He looked at it from the vantage point of a coadjutor bishop and made decisions of what he was going to do about us."

"Well, we're not used to that kind of authoritarianism," the priest continued. "It didn't show much respect for prior bishops who established it that way. We feel beaten up."

Unhappiness had reached such a level by the fall of 2005 that Finn had his new chancellor and vice chancellor host a series of town hall meetings in various regions of the diocese.

NCR described these meetings as "the first and only chance [lay parishioners had] to confront officials regarding the changes they had only heard about. Much of the discussion focused on that. Much was passionate, some of it heated."

Fr. Norman Rotert, another highly respected priest and leader in the diocese who had also retired by 2006, told NCR about the listening sessions.

"[Finn] is the king. I heard [vice chancellor Claude] Sasso said that at one of the listening sessions," said Rotert, who died in 2014. "Jesus is a king and the bishop is king in his diocese. That hardly works as a leadership style today. People demand a voice. The people know as much about things today as the bishop does and sometimes more."

Rotert told NCR then that his great fear was that "instead of speaking up and holding bishops accountable, people will just gradually fade away," a development he said would be "terribly, terribly unfortunate."

According to Huntz, the former chancellor, in September 2014: "Ten years ago ... when Bishop Finn came to Kansas City, the diocese had 165,000 Catholics. This past year, I submitted our official statistics to Rome, and we only had 128,000 Catholics. That's a 25 percent decline."

Fast-forward

Finn was popular among area Catholics, especially those who appreciated his traditional approach to ecclesiology and liturgy. He also attracted a good number of men to the seminary. This year, the diocese has 32 men in various stages of formation. Seven are to be ordained priests by the end of 2015.

Other projects have not gone as well. Finn announced in 2010 an ambitious plan to build a new $30 million high school in an eastern suburb of Kansas City. With this came the launch of a $15 million capital campaign.

The campaign struggled to take off, and fundraising is reportedly far behind projections. Though a name for the school has been chosen -- Michael the Archangel High School -- and a mascot -- the Guardians -- opening of the new school has been moved back from fall 2015 to fall 2016.

Another long-term dream of Finn's was to build a dormitory for Catholic college students. He hoped to build a dorm on the site of the closed school of St. Francis Xavier Parish, which is located between the campuses of Jesuit-run Rockhurst University and the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

The parishioners and neighborhood groups had other dreams for the property. Each side had feasibility studies conducted and hosted meetings and shared ideas, but never reached a consensus.

"We met several times [to discuss proposals], and the bishop clearly said he was only interested in the Catholic student housing project," parishioner Ken Spare said.

Finn's last chance was a March 17 meeting of the City Plan Commission of Kansas City.

Finn wrote to his priests and deacons before the hearing, inviting them "to be present at the meeting and support the Diocese's plan. If you attend it would certainly be appropriate for you to wear your collar."

Eleven women religious and one priest attended alongside Finn. The City Plan Commission unanimously voted against the project.

[Joshua J. McElwee (jmcelwee@ncronline.org) is NCR Vatican correspondent. Brian Roewe (broewe@ncronline.org) is NCR staff writer. Dennis Coday (dcoday@ncronline.org) is NCR editor.]

A version of this story appeared in the May 8-21, 2015 print issue under the headline: Bishop Finn resigns .
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