Letter calls upon Pope Francis to investigate Kansas City bishop

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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A judge's recent affirmation that the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese pay $1.1 million for breaching abuse settlement terms has led a retired Milwaukee priest to again request that the pope initiate a penal process investigating Bishop Robert Finn for violations of church law.

In a letter dated Aug. 21, Fr. James Connell, a canon lawyer, wrote to Pope Francis to inform him of recent developments that "solidify the need for a penal process in this matter."

"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.

On Aug. 14, Jackson County Circuit Judge Bryan E. Round upheld an arbitrator's March decision that the diocese violated five of 19 nonmonetary terms included as part of a 2008 settlement with 47 clergy abuse survivors. Both Round and arbitrator Hollis Hanover ordered the diocese to pay $1.1 million in damages. Spokesman Jack Smith confirmed to NCR the diocese would not appeal the decision.

The plaintiffs who brought the case to arbitration specifically pointed to Finn's and the diocese's failure to report former priest Shawn Ratigan when it first learned he possessed child pornography. In September 2012, Finn was convicted of a misdemeanor for failing to report suspected child abuse. Ratigan, who is serving a 50-year prison sentence, was laicized in January.

"The Arbitrator's Order, now confirmed by Judge Round," Connell wrote in the letter, "establishes that not only did Bishop Finn not report an allegation of sexual abuse of minors by one of his priests to civil authorities as required by Missouri law and for which Bishop Finn was found guilty of a crime ... in so doing Bishop Finn also violated the 2008 settlement agreement and has demonstrated that Bishop Finn and the Diocesan leadership have placed the importance of protecting clergy from criminal prosecution over that of protecting children from sexual abuse."

In early February, Connell sent a first letter and additional documents to Rome on behalf of a group of Kansas City Catholics asking for a canonical review of Finn. He based the request on two canons -- 1389 and 1399 -- and said "this lack of action by the Catholic Church to do justice and repair scandal contributes to the ongoing scandal among the faithful that is a result of the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis."

Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, apostolic nuncio to the U.S., confirmed Feb. 15 he received the letter and passed it on to Rome. Connell also mailed copies to Finn and St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson. Connell said he wrote Viganò a few months later asking for an update but received no reply.

In the latest four-page letter, the Milwaukee priest reiterated that while secular courts have found Finn in violation of civil law and breach of a settlement, the church has yet to act on possible violations of church law. He contends that by not reporting Ratigan to civil authorities, Finn in fact violated ecclesiastical law in addition to Missouri law.

"Obviously, all priests who have sexually abused a minor or a vulnerable adult should face the consequences for their action that is provided in law. Equally important, however, is recognizing that for many victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse the conduct of the bishops regarding this crisis has been more traumatic than was the trauma of the sexual abuse itself," Connell wrote.

"Hence, holding accountable those bishops who have contributed to the clergy sexual abuse scandal stands as the key to resolving this crisis and to rebuilding the trust among the people," he said.

A day after Connell sent the letter, a local prosecutor filed a probation status report on Finn. The Kansas City Star reported Friday that Jackson County Circuit Judge John Torrence, who convicted Finn and sentenced him to two years' probation, has until Sept. 5 to review the report and rule whether to dismiss the bishop's probation.

If Finn completed his probation without incident and satisfied the nine conditions of his sentence, his case would be closed to the public, according to The Star.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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