Vatican City — Pope Francis has appointed a new bishop for the diocese in the U.S. heartland that became an international symbol of church failings in the sexual abuse crisis, less than five months after the unusual resignation of its former leader.
Bishop James Johnston, until now the bishop of the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese in southern Missouri, has been appointed to replace resigned Bishop Robert Finn in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese in the same state.
The move, made relatively quickly for the Vatican following Finn’s April 21 resignation, brings Johnston some 160 miles north to try and rebuild a diocese that was rocked for more than three years by a scandal that eventually saw Finn found guilty of a criminal misdemeanor for mishandling an abusive priest.
The appointment also comes exactly one week before Francis lands for his first visit to the United States, a possible signal that the pontiff was looking to bring to a close an incredibly difficult period for the diocese before his visit to the country.
Johnston, 55, who had been the bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau since 2008, is a native of Knoxville, Tenn., and did his seminary studies first at Saint Meinrad Seminary in Indiana before earning a licentiate in canon law at The Catholic University of America. He chose to become a priest after a brief career as an electric engineer.
Finn, age 62, had led the Kansas City diocese since 2005 but made an unusually early retirement for Catholic bishops in April. He has not as yet been assigned a new diocese nor given a new leadership role in the church.
The former bishop’s leadership had 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.
A statement from the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese said Johnston would be introduced during a press conference at the local chancery Tuesday morning.
One local Catholic who had served as Finn’s second-in-command before becoming critical of the former bishop’s leadership said that there is “going to be a good sense of relief in the diocese that we have a bishop.”
“I think there will be a lot of joy that it is someone who was close by and has those relationships throughout the rest of Missouri,” said Jude Huntz, who served as Finn’s diocesan chancellor from 2011 until August 2014.
The Kansas City diocesan statement said Johnston would make brief remarks to the public at Tuesday’s event. It also noted that the new bishop was known in Springfield-Cape Girardeau for encouraging vocations to the priesthood, helping establish the southern Missouri office of Catholic Charities, and supporting the Catholic Worker movement.
At the U.S. bishops’ conference, Johnston is currently the bishops’ liaison to the National Council of Catholic Women and has previously served as a member of the bishops’ Committee on Child and Youth Protection.
Before being appointed a bishop in 2008, Johnston had served as chancellor and moderator of the curia in his native Knoxville diocese. At the time, that diocese was led by now-Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the current head of the Louisville, Ky., archdiocese and president of the U.S. bishops’ conference.
Huntz said he hoped the new bishop would focus first on continuing a healing process undergoing in the diocese to help those sexually abused by priests.
More than 200 people have attended two healing services held by the diocese to reach out to survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy over many decades. The first service was held at St. Thomas More Aug. 12 and the second was held Sept. 9 at St. Elizabeth Parish. The four parishes chosen for the services have history with clergy sex abuse.
The diocese began the program, Healing Our Parishes through Empathy (HOPE), in August, four months after Finn resigned. The services are the first of their kind in the diocese, according to Carrie Cooper, director of the Department of Child and Youth Protection.
The third service will be held at the Nativity of Mary Nov. 11, culminating with a Service of Lament June 26, 2016, at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception.
“Once those healing services are over he has to sit down and listen to the priests and the people around the diocese to see what sort of additional steps might be needed in terms of healing and going forward,” Huntz said.
An email sent from the Kansas City chancery to the priests of the diocese said their new bishop was “clearing his schedule” in order to spend time with them during their annual Oct. 5-8 priest retreat and was hoping the priests would join the group.
A brief biography of Johnston provided in that email highlights his membership in the Knights of Columbus and the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. It also notes that he and two priests were awarded the Interior Department’s Citizens Award for Bravery in 2005 for helping rescue a family in danger of falling over a waterfall in Glacier National Park.
Pressure for Finn’s resignation first 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 then-diocesan priest Shawn Ratigan, 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.
Separate from Ratigan’s legal defense, Finn and the Kansas City diocese had to defend themselves from separate misdemeanor charges brought by the Jackson County, Mo., prosecutor for failing to report suspected child abuse.
The prosecutor dropped the charges against the diocese after Finn agreed to the 2012 plea agreement.
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.
[Joshua J. McElwee is an NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]