Bishops in the
As the Catholic clerical sexual abuse scandal grinds into its fourth weary
decade, the costs tote up: thousands of abused victims, about 700 predator
priests removed from ministry, scores convicted of molestation of minors and
other crimes, billions in legal settlements and costs, devastating grand
jury reports about hierarchical collusion and cover up, and an unfathomable
sum of heartbreak and shattered faith.
How goes the struggle to reform? Not so well, at least according to
prosecutors in Kansas City and Philadelphia. In 2011, for the first time in
American history, criminal indictments were pressed against high church
officials for failing to report suspected child abuse and child
endangerment. In both cases, the charges deal with administrative decisions
made by church leaders in the recent past, not old cases dating decades
back. Both trials are expected to begin this spring.
Why, despite the largest, longest scandal in the history of religion in
America, are some Catholic bishops still struggling to evade or escape legal
requirements that they automatically call the cops whenever clergy are
accused of sexual misconduct?
One plausible answer is that old habits die hard. For the last 1,800 years,
the Catholic Church has pretty much consistently argued that its bishops
have the exclusive right to discipline their clergy, a standard that entered
Roman law as early as 412, when the Emperor Theodosius II agreed that only
bishops—and not imperial courts—should prosecute and punish clergy accused
That privilege expressed the church’s evolving sense of the ideal
church-state relationship—one that established powerful, state-supported
churches, but simultaneously safeguarded ecclesiastics and the church’s
inner organizational life from government oversight.
For centuries, the Roman Catholic church—and its state church descendents in
Protestant countries—vigorously fought off perceived threats to the legal
doctrine of “benefit of clergy.” Even in America, clergy were shielded from
civil or criminal prosecution in most of the British colonies before the
But in Missouri on October 15, Jackson County prosecutors indicted Bishop
Robert W. Finn of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese on a misdemeanor
charge, saying that diocesan officials had waited for five months—from
December 2010 to May 2011—to tell police that a computer technician had
given them a priest’s laptop computer containing scores of pornographic
images of little girls. Diocesan officials also failed to report that they
had received a five-page letter of complaint from a parochial school
principal raising suspicions that the same priest “fit the profile of a
child predator” in May 2010.
“In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops promulgated new rules
requiring bishops to establish independent review boards within their
dioceses,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorialized on October 18.
“In 2008, as part of a $10 million civil agreement with 47 abuse victims,
Bishop Finn agreed to even more stringent reporting regulations. Bishop Finn
seems to have ignored all of them in favor of the historic Catholic
tradition that within his diocese, the bishop is a law unto himself.”
“In 2004, the nation’s bishops promised unqualified
cooperation with law enforcement,” echoed a New York Times editorial
on October 21. “They instituted zero-tolerance for priests but failed to
create a credible process for bringing bishops to account. Missouri
officials deserve credit for puncturing the myth that church law and a
bishop’s authority somehow take precedence over criminal law—and the safety
In Finn’s home diocese, the Kansas City Star repeatedly called for
Finn’s resignation. Indeed, the intensity of news coverage of the arrests in
Philadelphia and Kansas City was something of a throwback to earlier days of
well-staffed newspapers. The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Star,
and even the New York Times each mobilized many reporters, including
veteran religion reporters (an almost extinct species) to cover the stories.
The Finn case followed the February arrest of Msgr. William Lynn, a senior
assistant to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004,
on two felony charges of child endangerment. Prosecutors charged that Lynn,
the archdiocesan secretary of the Office of the Clergy charged with
investigating claims of clerical misconduct, had failed to take action on
complaints lodged against Philadelphia priests and therefore had put
thousands of children at risk.
The charges arose directly from the case of a 10-year-old North Philadelphia
altar boy who allegedly was serially raped by two priests and a parochial
school teacher in 1996. One of the priests had previous accusations filed
against him in the 1970s and 1980s and had previously been placed in an
inpatient sex offender program, the Philadelphia Daily News reported
on February 11, 2011.
The News said that the Rev. Edward Avery was
“released with the recommendation that he be monitored and not be placed
around children, according to the grand jury.” While secretary of the
clergy, Lynn reportedly “ignored complaints that the after-care team never
met, and Bevilacqua assigned Avery to St. Jerome’s, the grand jury found.”
Lynn and Bevilacqua were bitterly criticized for their handling of
misconduct charges in a 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report that documented
widespread clerical misconduct in Philadelphia, but they were not indicted.
That report, issued by District Attorney Lynn Abraham after a two-year
investigation, complained that while church officials routinely investigated
claims of clerical misconduct, they failed to act decisively against more
than 60 priests who had been credibly charged. One priest had been
reassigned 17 times after complaints, the report charged. But statutes of
limitation had long expired on the cases examined in the first report.
On February 10, 2011, the current District Attorney, Seth Williams, issued a
second grand jury report, charging Lynn with child endangerment, and three
priests and a teacher with sex crimes. The criminal charges arose from a
criminal complaint in 2009 by the then-22 year-old former altar boy against
the priests—one of whom, Avery, had already been defrocked in 2006 on
unrelated sexual abuse charges.
Further, the second grand jury report stated that at least 37 “priests
accused of molestation and other inappropriate behavior toward children have
been allowed to remain in active ministry,” David O’Reilly and Nancy
Phillips of the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on February 13. “These
are simply not the actions of an institution that is serious about ending
sexual abuse of its children,” the report said. “There is no other
Cardinal Justin Rigali responded quickly. “I assure all the faithful that
there are no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or
established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them,” he said.
Rigali then announced that he had hired an independent outside lawyer, a
former prosecutor of sexual abuse cases, to review the archdiocesan files.
On March 9, he had announced that her review of the files had led him to
suspend 28 of the 31 priests pending further investigations. Twenty-one of
the priests were on active service.
“I know that for many people, their trust in the church
has been shaken,” Cardinal Rigali said in a statement carried in the
Inquirer. “I pray that the efforts of the archdiocese to address these
cases of concern and to re-evaluate our way of handling allegations will
help rebuild that trust in truth and justice.”
The news also came as a shock to the national church officials charged with
tracking clerical sexual abuse. Teresa M. Kettelcamp, executive director of
the Catholic bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection, told Laurie
Goodstein of the New York Times on March 26 that Philadelphia had
just passed its annual audit with “flying colors.”
On May 4, the Inquirer’s O’Reilly reported that the chairwoman of the
archdiocesan board charged with reviewing sex-abuse cases had “lashed out”
at Rigali and the other leaders of the archdiocese, “accusing them of having
‘failed miserably at being open and transparent’ about the misdeeds of their
Ana Maria Cotanzaro, a nurse who chaired the Philadelphia archdiocesan
review board for the previous eight years, said the board only learned with
the publication of the grand jury report that “most cases have been kept
“The board was under the impression that we were reviewing every abuse
allegation received by the archdiocese,” she said. They had been sent
allegations against only 10 of the 31 priests the grand jury had described
as credibly accused. At the same time, Catanzaro published a piece in
Commonweal, the lay Catholic magazine, on her experiences on the
Philadelphia and national review boards. “If Philadelphia’s bishops had
authentically followed their call to live the gospel, they would have acted
differently,” she wrote.
Catanzaro said she knew from her experience on the national review board
that other dioceses ask their review boards to determine whether an accused
priest molested a minor and then “make recommendations about his suitability
for ministry.” In Philadelphia, however, the “hierarchy focused more on
whether an accused priest had violated church law.”
She argued that every credible accusation should be investigated by a review
board or civil authorities, and that returning credibly accused priests to
supervised ministry rarely works because priests are so difficult to
That last point was amply reinforced in Kansas City. On May 19, Glenn E.
Rice of the Kansas City Star reported that “Clay County authorities
on Thursday accused a 45-year old priest of taking pornographic pictures of
children, in a case that church officials learned about in December but
didn’t report to police until last week.”
Charged was Rev. Shawn Ratigan, a priest serving St. Patrick’s Church in
north Kansas City. Bishop Finn immediately issued a statement that began:
“[I]n mid-December 2010 I was told that a personal computer belonging to Fr.
Shawn was found to have many images of female children. Most of these images
were of children at public or parish events. I was told that there was also
some small number of images that were much more disturbing, images of an
unclothed child who was not identifiable because her face was not visible.”
The Star reported that a computer repairman had found the photos and
alerted staff at the parish, who had given the computer to the diocese’s
information technology officer. When Ratigan discovered that the diocese had
the computer, he attempted suicide.
After psychiatric treatment, Ratigan was removed from the parish and
assigned as a chaplain at a convent in Independence. The parish was not told
about the computer photographs, then or for months afterwards. Finn’s
statement said he restricted the priest “from participating in or attending
other events if there were children present.”
During December, church officials had showed the photos on the computer to
legal counsel and called a Kansas City police officer who served on the
diocesan review board. The diocesan vicar general, Msgr. Robert Murphy,
described one of the photos to the officer over the phone, but did not show
him any of the photos. Both the lawyer and the police officer agreed that
“while very troubling, the photographs did not constitute pornography.”
Finn said that in early March the diocese had returned Ratigan’s computer to
his family, although diocesan officials kept a copy of its contents. Then,
in late March, the bishop “received some reports that Shawn was violating
some of the conditions of his stay. I was told he had attended a St.
Patrick’s Day parade and met with friends and families. He also attended a
child’s birthday party at the invitation of the child’s parents. I
confronted him about these things and told him again that he was not
permitted to have any contact with minors.”
When Ratigan continued to disregard Finn’s instructions, Murphy called the
Kansas City police officer again in early May, and the officer immediately
alerted the sex crimes unit. Within a week, Ratigan had been arrested.
“I deeply regret that we didn’t ask the police earlier to conduct a full
investigation,” Finn said. Neither Finn nor Murphy had referred the case to
the diocesan review board either.
Standing alone at a meeting with 300 parents at St. Patrick’s on May 20,
Finn expressed “deep regret” that the diocese had not called the police in
December. “One after another—mother after mother, father after father—lined
up to speak directly with Finn,” Joshua McElwee reported in the National
Catholic Reporter, the liberal Catholic weekly based in Kansas City that
has covered the sexual abuse crisis more thoroughly than any other news
organization, on May 27. ”Many were in tears. Others were speaking at the
top of their voices, almost without words to express their anger.”
“I should have acted differently in this regard and I am sorry,” Finn said.
“Don’t trust me. Trust our Lord Jesus Christ, trust his church.”
“From the earliest days of the Catholic church abuse scandal, the most
disturbing theme has been the church’s efforts to underplay its problem,”
the Star complained in a May 21 editorial. “Recent events have
created a scenario that further undermines the church’s credibility and
The Star’s concern looked understated by the end of the week. On May
27, the National Catholic Reporter reported that Finn and Murphy had
known as early as May 2010 that many working at St. Patrick’s were worried
about Ratigan’s relations with parish children.
The same day, the Star also reported that Julie Hess, principal of
St. Patrick’s School, had hand-delivered a letter on May 19, 2010 to Murphy
that stated she was trying “to fulfill my responsibilities as school
principal in relaying a growing body of parent and teacher concerns
regarding Pastor Shawn Ratigan’s perceived inappropriate behavior with
The letter listed a string of reports from parents and teachers about
Ratigan’s excessive interest in children, the amount of time he spent at the
school, his practice of allowing children to reach into his trouser pockets,
and the ways he decorated the rectory with stuffed animals on guest beds and
doll-shaped towels in the kitchen.
“Father takes hundreds of pictures of the kids, not just at special events
but on field trips and in their everyday activities,” Hess wrote. “A few
parents have mentioned that they think this is strange and wonder what he
does with all the pictures.”
Hess said that she and others at the school who had received diocesan
training on child safety worried that Ratigan “fit the profile of a child
Finn’s spokesperson, Rebecca Summers, told the National Catholic Reporter,
that—even though they knew about Hess’s letter—Murphy and Finn had not
reported Ratigan to the diocesan review board in December because the church
guidelines called for a review board “only when you have a specific
allegation of abuse.”
After the revelation, Finn called a press conference at which he
“acknowledged his failure to properly respond to warnings about a priest now
accused of possessing child pornography,” Glenn Rice and Judy Thomas of the
Star reported in a story headlined “Bishop Says He Failed in Ratigan
“‘I must also acknowledge my own failings,’ said a deflated Bishop Robert
Finn as he read from a brief statement during a hastily called news
conference,” the Star reported. ‘As Bishop, I owe it to people to say
things must change.’”
Finn said that after receiving the Hess letter, Murphy had given him a brief
oral summary and had reviewed the complaints, point by point, with Ratigan,
directing him to change his behavior. “Hindsight makes it clear that I
should have requested from Monsignor Murphy an actual copy of the report,”
Finn’s response created waves of ballistic rage, not least among activists
in the Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “Bishops are
smart, well-educated men who have tons of resources, lawyers, and public
relations professionals,” Mike Hunter, SNAP’s Kansas City president, said in
a public statement on June 2. “They know what they’re doing. Finn can’t
claim this was a ‘mistake.’ It wasn’t. It was a series of deliberate actions
over more than a year to hide potential crimes from the people who needed
and deserved to know about those crimes: police, prosecutors, parishioners,
and the public.”
As in Philadelphia, Finn was obliged to bring outsiders in. In June, he
produced a five-point plan and relieved Murphy of his responsibilities to
investigate charges of misconduct, hiring an external ombudsman to receive
and move forward all allegations of clerical misconduct. He also asked the
diocesan review board to expand its role and hired former U.S. District
Attorney Todd Graves to investigate the diocese handling of the Ratigan
affair and all of its misconduct inquiries.
On August 31, Graves issued a 190-page report. Its “key finding was that
Diocesan leaders failed to follow their own policies and procedures for
responding to reports of misconduct in the Ratigan” case and in another case
involving Rev. Michael Tierney.
“In both cases, the Diocesan Vicar General, Msgr. Robert Murphy, waited too
long to advise the Independent Review Board (“IRB”). In Fr. Tierney’s case,
the failure to notify the IRB did not seriously undermine the integrity of
the investigation or, in the Firm’s judgment, place minors in danger. The
flaws relating to Fr. Ratigan were more serious because neither Msgr.
Murphy, nor Bishop Finn, nor others with knowledge brought the matter to the
full IRB until after the arrest.
Absent IRB guidance, Msgr. Murphy conducted a limited and improperly
conceived investigation that focused on whether a specific image on Fr.
Ratigan’s laptop, which held hundreds of troubling images, met the
definition of “child pornography.”
“Rather than referring the matter to the IRB for a more searching review,
Msgr. Murphy allowed two technical answers to his limited questions to
satisfy the Diocese’s duty of diligent inquiry. Relying on these responses,
he failed to timely turn over the laptop to the police.
“Although Bishop Finn was unaware of some important facts learned by Msgr.
Murphy or that the police had never actually seen the pictures, the Bishop
erred in trusting Fr. Ratigan to abide by restrictions the Bishop had placed
on his interaction with children after the discovery of the laptop and Fr.
Ratigan’s attempted suicide.”
Finn’s indictment on a misdemeanor charge followed on
October 14. “Bishop Finn denies any criminal wrong-doing and has co-operated
at all stages with law enforcement, the grand jury, the prosecutor’s office,
and the Graves Commission,” Finn’s attorney said in a public statement. “We
will continue our efforts to resolve this matter.”
Reporters then took to assessing whether criminal charges against high
church officials in Philadelphia and Kansas City were likely to encourage
more prosecutors to take action.
Writing from Rome, the National Catholic Reporter’s top correspondent
John L. Allen thought they might, noting that in recent years a French
bishop and two Italian cardinals have also faced prosecution. “Not long ago,
Catholic bishops in Europe and North America enjoyed considerable deference
from police, prosecutors, judges, and grand juries—sufficient leeway, at
least, to make criminal sanctions an unrealistic prospect. Those days,
however, seem to be coming to an end.”
Other were less sure. David Clohessy of SNAP told Mitchell Landsberg of the
Los Angeles Times on October 15 that Kansas City might well be an
outlier. “What makes Kansas City different than cover up cases elsewhere is
that the wrongdoing is so well documented and so egregious, and actually had
lead to real harm to real kids.
“In other words, there are little girls in Kansas City whose naked images
have been taken by a priest months after suspicions about him should have
been reported to the police.”
Voices were also raised to defend Finn in the wake of the arrest. Missouri
attorney Michael Quinlan took to the Catholic EWTN website, arguing that
under Missouri law there was no clear victim in the case and that Finn
indeed sent Ratigan for a psychological assessment that concluded that he
was not a pedophile.
On October 21, William Donahue of the Catholic League for
Religious and Civil Rights announced that the League would stand by Finn
“without reservation.” A series of press releases and media events followed
beginning on October 31 with an attack on the Star for rejecting a
League advertisement defending Finn and criticizing SNAP.
“We know what’s going on,” Donahue wrote in one of his blog-like press
releases. “The Kansas City Star has long been in bed with SNAP,
just as SNAP is in bed with attorneys like (Rebecca) Randles and her mentor,
Jeffrey Anderson. All are decidedly anti-Catholic. To wit: on September 25,
the Star ran a 2223-word front-page Sunday news story on SNAP. To
say it was a puff piece would be an understatement.”
The Donahue offensive continued through early December, even though Finn
himself had decided to engage in more decisive damage control. On November
16, the Star, the New York Times, and other news organizations
reported that Finn had reached an agreement with the prosecutor in Clay
County, Missouri, to meet every month to report personally on all
allegations of misconduct, in order to avoid a second round of criminal
charges. (The first criminal charge was made in Jackson County, where St.
Patrick’s Church is located. Diocesan headquarters is in neighboring Clay
“The agreement leaves the bishop open to prosecution for misdemeanor charges
for five years, if he does not continue to meet with prosecutors and report
all episodes,” reported A.G. Sulzberger and Laurie Goodstein of the New
York Times, “But victim’s advocates criticized the deal as cozy and
ineffectual, compared to previous agreements between bishops and
The Times said that Catholic bishops and dioceses in Cincinnati,
Manchester, New Hampshire, Phoenix, Santa Rosa, California and Boston have
made similar agreements in recent years. In New Hampshire, the deal called
for annual inspections of the diocesan records by the state attorney
general, with public release of the results.
If prosecutors in Missouri were inclined to reach accommodations with the
Catholic church, the same cannot be said in Philadelphia, where a brawl
between prosecutors and archdiocesan lawyers rolled on through the fall and
winter. This included a series of dramatic and explosive pre-trial hearings
for Lynn and at least two of the priests charged.
A central issue was whether retired Cardinal Bevilacqua, suffering from
dementia and cancer at 88, could or should testify at the trial. On January
31, one day after a judge ruled him competent to stand trial, he died. A
measure of the paranoia generated by the legal conflict was that on February
12, the district attorney of suburban Montgomery County asked the county
coroner to exhume the cardinal’s body and perform an autopsy to ensure that
he succumbed to natural causes.
Over the summer, meanwhile, Archbishop Rigali had retired and been replaced
by Charles Chaput, formerly archbishop of Denver. During the fall, Chaput
replaced the archdiocese’s longtime lawyers with a new firm. How he stood on
the Lynn case became a matter of intense scrutiny.
On October 5, the Inquirer’s John P. Martin reported that Chaput had
attended and spoken at a dinner for hundreds of Philadelphia priests in
suburban Montgomery County soon after his arrival in Philadelphia. An
unnamed priest who attended the dinner told Martin that the new archbishop
“singled Lynn out in the crowd and noted how difficult the ordeal had been
for him.” Many of the priests attending then gave Lynn a standing ovation.
Martin then repeated a remark that Chaput had made just before his September
installation: “It’s really important to me, and I think to all of us, that
he be treated fairly and that he not be a scapegoat.”
The pre-trial hearings were bruising, with prosecutors successfully pushing
to be allowed to refer to the archdiocese’s handling of many misconduct
cases at the Lynn trial and defense lawyers at one point asking that Common
Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina remove herself from the trial. That
request came on February 9, after Sarmina refused to let them ask potential
jurors: “Do you believe child sexual abuse is a widespread problem in the
In disallowing the question, Sarmina said that “anyone who doubted there was
a ‘widespread’ child abuse problem in the Catholic Church is living on
another planet,” Martin reported.
That dustup followed an eruption of rage from William Donahue on January 31
over another Martin story, which recounted Assistant District Attorney’s
Mark Cipolletti’s statement that the archdiocese “was supplying him with an
endless amount of victims.”
Prosecutors had explained their charges against Lynn by saying that Lynn had
“recommended two priests, James J. Brennan and Edward Avery, for parish
appointments despite knowing or suspecting they would abuse children.” Both
priests already had reports of separate incidents of molesting a boy in
their files. Lynn’s attorney, Thomas Bergstrom, called Cipolletti’s remark’s
“nutty,” saying that six of the seven accusations against Avery were made
after Lynn had left his assignment as secretary of the clergy, yet
Cipolletti kept hammering away.
Donahue moved it up a notch, calling him malicious: “Just think about what
he is saying. We are to believe that ‘the archdiocese was supplying [Avery]
with an endless amount of victims’ [my italic]. This boggles the mind. Was
the Archdiocese of Philadelphia operating a human conveyor belt—lining the
boys up single file before feeding them to predators? Or did archdiocesan
officials follow the advice of therapists and allow for treated abusers to
return to ministry, just the way every other institution, religious and
secular, did up until recently?
Prosecutors and defense lawyers went at it again in late February, fighting
over whether the discovery of a 1994 memo in which Bevilacqua ordered Lynn
to shred a previous memo that stated that 35 priests serving in Philadelphia
had allegations of abuse in their personnel files. A copy of the memo,
apparently preserved in a locked safe, was discovered in 2006 but not turned
over to prosecutors until February, just after Bevilacqua’s death.
Defense attorneys argued that the order to shred the memo
“proved that Bevilacqua had played an active role in covering up clergy
sex-abuse, and that he lied to a grand jury when he said he deferred to
Lynn’s recommendations on how to handle such complaints,” the Inquirer
reported on February 27. “They asked Sarmina to dismiss the charges,
claiming that had the grand jury known of the perjury, they might not have
recommended charges against Lynn.
Prosecutors, the Inquirer reported, countered that the memo was “a
smoking gun for the prosecution case against Lynn. Meanwhile, Sarmina
ordered the archdiocese to produce all records of Lynn’s dealings with
lawyers by the beginning of the trial.
To say the least, no deal with prosecutors seemed in the offing.
Meanwhile, far away in Rome, some rumblings were reported as the Vatican
prepared new instructions for the world’s bishops about how to handle
reports of sexual abuse by clergy. Cardinal William Levada, former
archbishop of San Francisco and prefect of the powerful Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Faith, told reporters on February 6 that bishops have an
obligation to “co-operate” with local law enforcement. But he stopped short
of recommending that the new rules for bishops mandate the reporting of all
abuse allegations to police.