Federal Prosecutors Want Life Sentence for Priest in Child Pornography Case

By Mark Morris
Kansas City Star
August 19, 2011

A Catholic priest accused of producing child pornography should receive life in prison if convicted, federal prosecutors declared Thursday.

Prosecutors disclosed their sentencing goals in a motion asking that the Rev. Shawn Ratigan remain in jail pending trial. They filed the paperwork just minutes before Ratigan’s first federal court appearance on 13 counts of production, attempted production and possession of child pornography.

John P. O’Connor, Ratigan’s lawyer, entered not guilty pleas to all the federal charges on his client’s behalf. The priest, dressed in black jail scrubs and still sporting a bushy, full beard, did not speak during his brief appearance.

Because Ratigan has not been able to make bond on three Clay County counts of possessing child pornography, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sarah W. Hays said she would defer ruling on the federal detention motion unless it became necessary.

The court filings also disclosed new information about how leaders of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph responded when they learned that troubling photographs had been discovered on Ratigan’s computer. The priest had given that computer to a technician for repair in December.

Ratigan allegedly lied to his supervisors when they asked if he had taken the pictures, court records said. In addition to various “upskirt” and “crotch” photographs, the supervisors asked Ratigan about a “close-up vaginal” photograph found on his computer, court records said.

Other court records have described that picture as a girl lying down with her panties pulled aside.

Church officials have not described their initial discussions with Ratigan about the photographs, but have suggested that they weren’t certain that the pictures constituted child pornography.

In a statement on May 20, just after Ratigan was arrested on the state charges, Bishop Robert Finn said that he had learned in December about “images of an unclothed child who was not identifiable because her face was not visible.”

The diocese soon described the images to a Kansas City police officer and showed them to a lawyer, Finn said. Both said the images were troubling, but were not child porn because they did not show “sexual conduct or contact,” according to Finn.

Federal prosecutors later concluded that the image that Ratigan denied taking was pornographic and charged him.

Rebecca Summers, a spokeswoman for the diocese, noted that the prosecutors’ description of Ratigan’s questioning was not specific as to when it occurred and which of his supervisors were involved. For those reasons, Summers said, she was not comfortable commenting on the episode.

“The diocese was not present for these proceedings,” Summers said.

Immediately after church officials seized Ratigan’s computer, the priest attempted suicide, received psychiatric care and was assigned to live in an Independence mission house.

Prosecutors disclosed Thursday that in addition to accessing Facebook from a computer in a common area of the house, Ratigan also purchased a computer, which he used in his apartment for about 10 days before his arrest.

Images of a 12-year-old girl found on that computer, taken on Easter Sunday, April 24, formed the basis of a charge against Ratigan of attempted production of child pornography.

Anticipating Ratigan’s transfer from state to federal custody, O’Connor asked that the priest be incarcerated at a jail for pre-trial detainees in Leavenworth.

He also asked that Ratigan be watched closely.

“I believe he would be in danger if placed with other inmates,” O’Connor said. “He also could be a danger to himself. I’m concerned for his safety.”

O’Connor also said that Ratigan was on suicide watch for the first three weeks he was in custody at the Clay County Jail.

To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to


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