Judge won't dismiss charge against Missouri bishop

April 5, 2012 - 3:55 PM
Catholic Bishop Charged

In this Nov. 14, 2011 photo, Bishop Robert Finn, of Kansas City, Mo., leaves a meeting at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' annual fall assembly in Baltimore. A Jackson County judge in Kansas City on Thursday, April 5, 2012, denied several motions to dismiss misdemeanor charges against the Roman Catholic bishop and his diocese. Finn is the highest-ranking U.S. church official criminally charged with shielding an abusive priest. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri judge refused Thursday to dismiss misdemeanor charges against a Kansas City diocese and its bishop, who is the highest-ranking U.S. Roman Catholic official criminally charged with shielding an abusive priest.

Bishop Robert Finn and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph are charged with failing to report suspected child abuse. Prosecutors say each is a "mandatory reporter" under the state law. Defense attorneys argued the law is unconstitutionally vague, and that Finn wasn't the diocese's designated reporter.

"This Court finds and concludes that persons of ordinary intelligence have no difficulty understanding the meaning of 'immediately report,'" Circuit Judge John Torrence wrote in his ruling.

A spokeswoman for the diocese declined to comment Thursday.

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said she was pleased Thursday and that her office would continue to "prepare diligently for trial in this case."

Torrence denied a request by attorneys for Finn and the diocese to have the cases tried separately if they advanced, saying there is no reason to have two separate trials in a case involving most of the same facts. He also granted two defense motions to quash subpoenas and one to extend the deadlines before the trial, which is to begin Sept. 24.

Finn has acknowledged he was told in December 2010 about hundreds of images of small children, some of them pornographic, found on the Rev. Shawn Ratigan's computer — several months before the diocese turned over a disk containing the photos to local police. The bishop also has acknowledged that a parish principal raised concerns about Ratigan's behavior around children in May 2010, half a year before the photos were found.

A computer technician working on the laptop had discovered the images, many of which were focused on the crotch areas of the clothed children. One series showed the exposed genitals of a girl believed to be 3 or 4 years old.

The day after the photos were found, Ratigan was found unconscious in his garage, his motorcycle running and a note nearby apologizing for the harm he caused to the church, the children and their families.

Finn in turn sent Ratigan out of state for a psychiatric evaluation. When the priest returned to Missouri, Finn sent him to the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist, where he was to say Mass for the sisters and be away from children.

The diocese went to police with the photos last May after the church received reports Ratigan had violated orders to stay away from children.

Ratigan was charged that month with three state child pornography counts. He was then charged in June with 13 federal counts of producing, possessing and attempting to produce child porn. He has pleaded not guilty and remains jailed.

Finn has claimed Vicar General Robert Murphy and a diocese review board — not the bishop — were responsible for reporting suspected images of child pornography to the state.

But prosecutors insist that as the diocese's top manager, Finn not only was a mandatory reporter, but acknowledged as much before a grand jury.

Experts say a criminal conviction against Finn could send shock waves through a church hierarchy unaccustomed to being held legally accountable for failing to report suspected sexual abuse by clergy members. Some also have said a conviction against the bishop could result in a flood of civil lawsuits in addition to dozens already filed against the diocese.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, issued a statement Thursday praising the judge's ruling.

"This is the first time that a Bishop has faced criminal charges for his role in a cover-up, and we are hopeful that the full truth will come out in a trial," Clohessy said.