Kansas City Star - Missouri June 2, 2011
Lawsuit: Diocese was warned about priest now facing child porn charges
By JUDY L. THOMAS and GLENN E. RICE | The Kansas City Star
Local Roman Catholic officials were warned in 2006 about a priest now accused of possessing child pornography yet took no action, a lawsuit filed in federal court Thursday alleges.
The lawsuit, filed by the parents of a young girl, also alleges that beginning around 2006 and continuing through 2010 the Rev. Shawn F. Ratigan took photographs underneath her clothing and while the child was nude.
Lawyers for the child’s family said the photographs were taken while Ratigan was assigned in St. Joseph.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Kansas City, names Ratigan, Bishop Robert Finn and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph as defendants.
“Another child has been harmed, and more children have been harmed, and this diocese has failed to protect the children,” Jeff Anderson of the Minnesota law firm of Anderson & Associates said in a news conference in Kansas City.
The diocese issued a brief statement in response to the lawsuit.
“First and foremost, the diocese is deeply concerned for the well-being of this child and her family,” the statement said. “The bishop has reached out to a number of parishes and offered listening sessions.”
Ratigan, 45, of Kansas City, North, was charged last month by Clay County authorities with three counts of possessing child pornography — photos taken while working for churches and schools in the area. Ratigan has pleaded not guilty to those charges and remains in custody on $200,000 bond.
The diocese already had acknowledged that a principal of a Catholic school in Kansas City, North, had warned diocesan officials a year ago of Ratigan’s troubling behavior around girls.
But the lawsuit alleges that as far back as 2006 an employee of the diocese reported to diocesan officials that she observed suspicious behavior involving Ratigan and a young girl. The lawsuit alleges that the diocese and Finn protected themselves and Ratigan from scandal by doing nothing with the report.
The plaintiff’s lawyers would not provide further details about the 2006 report, including who made it or specifically to whom it was given.
The lawsuit alleges Ratigan took sexually explicit photographs, uploaded them to his computer and distributed them over the Internet. It also contends that Finn and the diocese possessed and distributed child pornography by viewing and making copies of Ratigan’s photos.
The lawsuit seeks damages, including expenses incurred for medical treatment of the girl.
Two law firms announced the legal action Thursday at a news conference.
Anderson’s firm was joined by the Kansas City firm of Randles, Mata & Brown, which has filed dozens of priest sex-abuse lawsuits. Anderson & Associates has filed about 2,000 priest sex-abuse lawsuits across the country.
The diocese “allowed this predator, Father Shawn Ratigan, to access children with what we believe is sufficient knowledge to not only have removed him but to have reported him,” Anderson said.
Ratigan’s attorney, John P. O’Connor, declined to comment.
One case handled by the Randles firm involved 47 plaintiffs and resulted in a $10 million settlement against the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese in 2008.
Rebecca Randles said the diocese entered an agreement with the plaintiffs when it settled that lawsuit.
“As part of the agreement, the diocese agreed that they would take certain steps to ensure that children were safe from now on,” she said.
Those steps, she said, included setting up victims’ advocacy programs and immediately reporting any abuse or suspicion of abuse to law enforcement authorities in accordance with Missouri statutes.
“Our clients are incredibly upset. They’re angry, and they’re very sad that the steps they took to try to protect children for the future simply seemed to fall on deaf ears,” Randles said. “At the time we negotiated those settlements, the bishop and the monsignor were in the mediations listening to those stories of abuse, listening to the lives that were shattered.”
Pat Noaker, of Anderson & Associates, told The Star that the FBI was investigating the case and that the girl’s family had been cooperating with the agency. Authorities in Buchanan County, where St. Joseph is located, also said the FBI was investigating.
FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton said she could neither confirm nor deny whether the agency was looking into the Ratigan case.
Ratigan was charged last month, although church officials had learned about several questionable photos in mid-December when a technician fixing Ratigan’s laptop computer discovered them, according to court documents.
The diocese did not officially notify police until May 13.
Noaker said the lawsuit was alleging that the diocese possessed and distributed child pornography because “they had access, and they in fact made copies of the pornography that they pulled off Father Ratigan’s computer in December 2010, and they possessed that for six months before turning it over to law enforcement authorities.”
“They also distributed it to different people along the way.”
The lawsuit cites Masha’s Law, a federal law enacted in 2006 that gives child-pornography victims the right to sue anyone who produces, downloads, distributes or possesses sexually explicit images of them.
The law was named after a girl from Russia who was adopted at age 5 by a man who sexually abused her and made recordings of it.
Victims can recover damages of no less than $150,000.
Randles told The Star that she also had been contacted by six members of St. Patrick Catholic Church in Kansas City, North, who allege that their children are victims of Ratigan. He was at St. Patrick from July 2009 to December 2010.
Police have said they had contacted families at the church in an attempt to identify the girls in the photos. Lawyers in the case filed Thursday said that’s how their clients learned of the abuse.
The diocese on Thursday also asked for the public to help police with the case.
“We urge anyone within the community who has information about the actions of Shawn Ratigan to make a confidential report to (Kansas City police) Detective Maggie McGuire at (816) 584-6633,” according to the diocese’s statement.
Finn earlier expressed regret about the handling of the case.
Last week he acknowledged that he did not heed warnings about Ratigan’s past behavior.
Finn’s statement came after it was revealed that the principal of St. Patrick School in Kansas City, North, had given diocesan officials a memo more than a year ago detailing concerns teachers and parents had about Ratigan’s behavior and interactions with children, including hugging and touching that they considered inappropriate.
Finn said that Monsignor Robert Murphy, the diocese’s vicar general, briefed him about the memo last year but that he did not ask to read it. Finn said that when he finally read it last Thursday “I was ashamed at the fact we had not done enough to respond to that.”
Finn is to meet with members of St. Thomas More parish in south Kansas City at 7 p.m. today.
On Wednesday a review board established years ago by the diocese to assess sexual abuse allegations met privately for two hours and came up with a recommendation to deal with cases such as Ratigan’s.
Review board chairman Jim Caccamo and a diocesan spokeswoman said it would be up to the bishop whether to discuss the content of the proposal.
Thursday night dozens gathered at the Kansas City, North, Community Center to discuss the Ratigan case at a meeting organized by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
The meeting was closed to the media “out of consideration for the privacy and feelings of parishioners,” SNAP leaders said. Organizers said there was a standing-room-only crowd.
“It’s packed,” said Judy Jones, SNAP’s Midwest associate director. “As you can imagine, things are pretty tense in there. People are very upset. Almost everyone is angry at the church officials.”
Stephanie Gunn, of St. Thomas More parish, said she was “sick and fed up of the whole situation.”
“I came here because I’m devastated,” she said. “I’m embarrassed, and I am so angry at the religious leaders of the Catholic Church. … They have put children’s lives in danger. They knew it, and they tried to sweep it under the covers like they have in the past.
“It’s not going to work this time. There are too many people who are fired up, and we intend to go as far as we can to remove these people from the diocese office.”
Gunn said numerous people talked about wanting the bishop to step down.
“They’re sick of it,” she said. “They’re not willing to listen to any more excuses.”
The Star’s editorial | Bishop’s delays, inaction should lead to his resignation
Recent child sexual abuse allegations and disturbing inattention to earlier warnings make it clear it’s time for Bishop Robert Finn to step down.
It’s painful to believe the most vulnerable in his flock weren’t protected. Allegations that priests in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph were harming children apparently were downplayed, even in the aftermath of a stream of national scandals. Finn appears to have pushed legal limits and shattered moral guidelines by delaying actions. He has tragically shaken the faith of many who seek peace in churches under his supervision.
In 2008, when the church agreed to settle a lawsuit with 47 plaintiffs for $10 million, Finn promised that the diocese would take steps to ensure that children from that moment on were safe in religious settings. Yet he now says he regrets not actively pursuing newer allegations against a priest in his diocese.
Clearly, Finn could not reasonably have been expected to have governed the actions of every priest under his jurisdiction. And he is not responsible for what happened before he assumed his office in 2005. However, there was a disturbing pattern in his diocese. As of now, 18 current and former priests have been accused of abuse.
Given those numbers, Finn can reasonably be held to a higher degree of diligence than he exhibited. And it’s understandable that some parishioners perceive a cavalier manner in which he loitered with allegations.
Our society has enacted laws to punish those who victimize children. But there are also laws against ignoring suspicions of child abuse.
Last year in Augsburg, Germany, Bishop Walter Mixa faced abuse allegations, resigned, and the German church was healed, in part at least.
A resignation here could be step one in rebuilding faith in the diocese. For step two, area prosecutors must actively pursue all relevant criminal charges against all involved in these scandals.
These steps are necessary to protect society, to protect the Catholic Church and, most of all, to protect our children.
Priest's pornography case reveals clericalism of the laity
by Jamie L Manson
Scholars do it.
Activists do it.
Even educated, justice-oriented parishioners do it.
No, Cole Porter fans, I’m not talking about falling in love, but rather falling fall prey to the internalized clericalism of the laity.
What else can explain the fact that many members of the Roman Catholic laity continue to give the clergy a pass after committing crimes that would easily bring down political powerhouses and tycoons of industry?
The latest tale of the mishandling of priestly sexual misconduct comes from the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese. Exactly one year after the principal of a Catholic elementary school sent a letter of concern about the predatory behavior of Fr. Shawn Ratigan, the priest was arrested for possession of child pornography.
At issue is the fact that no diocesan official ever responded to principal Julie Hess’ concerns. It wasn’t until Ratigan attempted suicide in December -- seven months after Hess’ complaint was submitted -- that the priest was reassigned to a sisters’ community.
Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn admitted Friday that he did not read Hess’ letter, submitted May 19, 2010, until May 26, 2011 -- a week after Ratigan’s arrest.
Hess’ letter recounts over a dozen “red flag-raising” instances of the priest spending excessive time with children, inappropriately touching children and making children touch him. One father saw Ratigan rubbing circles in his daughter’s back. A mother found a pair of girl’s panties in a planter at the priest's home during a Brownie Girl Scout gardening.
The letter makes clear that Hess, as well as many teachers and parents, were very proactive not only in adhering to the diocesan guidelines for preventing sexual misconduct, but also in trying to keep the children away from the priest. Parents called their children away from him, and teachers quickly hovered near the priest when he approached the children too closely.
Their actions are commendable and one hopes that teachers and parents everywhere are modeling similar responses around suspected predators. However, I cannot help but note two troubling aspects of the story. First, it seems no one called the police. Second, parents, teachers, and school leaders did not make more noise and make greater demands for timely action. They waited and waited for a response from the chancery.
Obviously, I do not know every exact detail of what happened at that school over the past year. But this story, and the many others like it, left me wondering: if the predator in question were not a priest but were, instead, a teacher or coach, would parents and teachers have moved more quickly and aggressively to have the situation dealt with?
If parents found out that a public school superintendent, rather than a bishop, neglected to read a principal’s report about a teacher that had similarly sordid claims, would they not be relentless in calling for the superintendent’s resignation and prosecution of the teacher?
And yet, Ratigan was able to function freely as a priest for years, and Finn will likely emerge unscathed from the scandal.
The St. Patrick’s saga is but one example of the fascinating fear that many Catholics seem to have of calling church leaders to accountability the way they would elected officials, educators, and other non-clerical folk. This double standard that Catholics have in dealing with the clergy, I believe, is a result of the internalized clericalism that the laity inherited as part of their Catholic inculcation.
Critics of the institutional church frequently point to the corrosive arrogance of the Catholic clergy as the root cause of so much abuse of power. It is important, however, to consider the extent to which the clericalism of the laity enables these abuses to take place, and to reflect on the multitude of ways this phenomenon affects a spectrum of Catholics, including some of our most progressive voices.
I have seen the effects of lay clericalism among professors at Catholic colleges and universities, who fret about discussing controversial issues about gender and sexuality in an academic forum. Tenured scholars, who are exponentially more educated than most Roman Catholic priests, can quickly become terrified of the reactions of bishops to their academic programs.
I have seen lay clericalism in parishes considered “prophetic” because of their commitment to social justice, service to the poor, and welcoming of marginalized Catholics. And, yet, in many cases these progressive voices will not challenge the parish priest, even when he makes decisions that compromise a parish’s legacy of advocacy.
I know many lay women and men who have labored on parish staffs and have suffered the fruits of lay clericalism. Regardless of a lay minister’s education level, years of experience, and ministerial gifts, parishioners almost always have a submissive “preferential option” for the priest -- even if they disagree strongly with his policies and practices. A lay person’s degrees and pastoral presence are no match against the power of simply being “Father.”
So often it is the clericalism of the laity, rather than the clericalism of the clergy, that undermines the power of the laity in our church.
I am not a psychologist, but I know enough about human emotions to see that many Catholics still react to the institutional church as a damaged child would react to a punishing, authoritarian parent.
Though many have rejected the paternalism of church teachings, especially on issues of sexual morality, so many Catholics have not been able to wipe away the residue of experiencing the Catholic clergy as a disapproving parent, capable of banishing us from the love of God.
In the comments section of one of the NCR reports on the Ratigan case, several readers noted that Hess would surely be fired eventually for exposing both a predator priest and the mishandling of the case by a bishop who is a favorite of traditionalists.
Responding to this claim, an anonymous commentator, seemingly connected with St. Patrick’s, responded emphatically: “If this principal catches any grief over this[,] a full riot will occur at St. Pat's[.] I will help incite it. We will not let mis-conduct by the diocese punish our excellent school and its stellar leader.”
I pray that this person’s convictions will find support within St. Patrick’s lay community.
By risking their relationship with the institutional church in order to uphold a layperson of integrity, the laity of St. Patrick’s have the opportunity to join the growing ranks of Catholic communities that refuse to collude in the hierarchy’s abuse of power, like the administration of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, Ariz.
As the tales of the institutional church’s deception and negligence continue to mount, lay Catholics must stop making themselves subservient to their imagined notions of the power of the hierarchy, and must instead allow themselves to be channels of the power of God that is made manifest through sacrifice, courage, and truthfulness.
They must recognize how their internalized clericalism may be impeding their prophetic participation in the Spirit’s unfolding work in our church.
[Jamie L. Manson received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her columns for NCR earned her a first prize Catholic Press Association award for Best Column/Regular Commentary in 2010.]
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