Catholic Bishops Resist Calls for Major Changes in Policy Addressing Child Sex Abuse

By Judy L. Thomas
Kansas City Star
June 17, 2011

Roman Catholic priest Shawn F. Ratigan briefly appeared in Clay County Associate Circuit Court on Thursday. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of possessing child pornography. The case against him has been continued to July 21.

The nation’s Roman Catholic bishops on Thursday resisted calls for major changes in their child sex abuse policy despite recent cases involving priests in Kansas City and Philadelphia.

Critics say those cases raise questions about whether some bishops are even following the policy, which was crafted nine years ago to address the sex abuse crisis that was rocking the church.

The critics reacted swiftly after Thursday’s 187-5 vote, which approved a few revisions, including listing child pornography as a violation of church law.

“We are dismayed that the new policy is almost identical to the current policy, despite horrifying recent evidence in Kansas City and Philadelphia that the church’s current policies are dangerously lenient and full of loopholes,” said Terence McKiernan, president of, a group that operates an online database of accused priests.

“The policy needs to be overhauled. This is a squandered opportunity and a disaster for children, not only in the United States but worldwide,” he said.

But Bishop Blase J. Cupich of Spokane, Wash., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People, said the charter had been effective.

“The charter has served the church well,” he told about 200 bishops on Wednesday as he explained some adjustments to the charter.

“The charter works,” Cupich said. “It is a helpful tool as we keep our pledge to protect children, promote healing and rebuild trust with our people. The decisions that we made are now having a positive impact on the universal church.”

The revisions, adopted Thursday during the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Spring General Assembly in Bellevue, Wash., bring the charter in line with recent Vatican norms that include child pornography as a crime against church law and say abusing a mentally disabled person is equivalent to child abuse.

The revised document also instructs church officials to report allegations against bishops to the pope’s representative in the United States as well as to police.

A recent grand jury investigation in Philadelphia found that Cardinal Justin Rigali allowed 37 accused priests to continue working around children in Catholic parishes. The grand jury also charged a former archdiocesan official with endangerment of children for allegedly transferring accused priests to other parishes.

And last month, Bishop Robert Finn of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese acknowledged that he did not heed past warnings about the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, a priest now charged with possessing child pornography.

Finn attended the bishops’ conference this week but did not respond to requests for comment about the revised charter.

Ratigan, 45, who is being held on $200,000 bond, has pleaded not guilty. He made a brief court appearance in Clay County court on Thursday. The case was continued to July 21.

The “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” requires bishops to report all child abuse accusations to civil authorities. The document, adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2002 in response to the exploding crisis of sexual abuse of minors by priests, also calls for any priest guilty of child molestation to be removed from his duties, no matter when the abuse occurred.

McKiernan said he wanted the bishops to make several changes to the charter, such as requiring allegations to be immediately reported to police, promptly removing priests from duties if they’re accused of abuse, and requiring all dioceses to post detailed lists of accused priests on their websites.

McKiernan said the Ratigan case was a prime example of the charter’s ineffectiveness.

The diocese learned in December of images Ratigan had on his laptop computer and assigned him to stay at a priests’ residence in Independence run by the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist. The diocese did not officially notify police about Ratigan until May or tell its review board about him.

The review board, a key component of the bishops’ child abuse charter, is charged with assessing allegations against priests and making recommendations to the bishop.

After Ratigan was charged, it was revealed that the principal of St. Patrick School in Kansas City, North, gave diocesan officials a memo more than a year ago detailing concerns teachers and parents had about Ratigan’s inappropriate behavior with children.

“Bishop Robert Finn for an entire year shielded from public exposure and police investigation a priest who was producing and distributing child porn using parish children as subjects,” McKiernan said. “And Bishop Finn withheld the case from his review board.”

McKiernan said criminal investigations and civil suits “are the best ways to obtain justice and transparency in clergy abuse cases.”

“But improved church procedures can help,” he said. “The U.S. bishops’ policy must be radically revised so that it finally protects children, not the offending priests and enabling bishops.”

Patrick Wall, a canon lawyer and former Benedictine monk who is an advocate for clergy sex abuse victims, said victims’ best hope is to go immediately to civil authorities.

“The bishops are not enforcing their own rules, and they’re snubbing the civil rules of the United States,” Wall said.

At a news conference after Thursday’s vote, Bishop Cupich reaffirmed the charter’s zero tolerance policy on abusive priests, saying it was necessary to protect children, promote healing and restore trust.

“We learned the hard way that the advice we received from the world of psychology and experts in psychology who told us that people could be rehabilitated and treated and brought back into ministry was bad advice,” he said. “And children, as a result, were put in harm’s way, because some of these people reoffended.”

If the church is going to promote healing, Cupich said, it has to put victims first.

“And that means that we have to take (priest offenders) out of ministry,” he said. If not, he said, trust can’t be restored.

“I would find it very difficult, as a diocesan bishop, to go to a community and say, ‘I’m going to assign as your pastor or associate pastor a priest who has abused a minor,’?” he said. “I can tell you, that priest would not be accepted. And my judgment on other issues would be called into question.”

The Star’s Glenn E. Rice contributed to this report. To reach Judy L. Thomas, call 816-234-4334 or send email to


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