Bishops’ Accountability

America Magazine

The case that led to the conviction of Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph on a misdemeanor count for failing to report suspected child abuse is a grim one. The Rev. Shawn Ratigan, a parish priest who had been previously suspected of inappropriate behavior around children, downloaded pornographic photos of young girls onto h is laptop and created some himself, which was discovered when he brought his computer in for repair. Several people tried to alert the bishop to this and other incidents, but, as The New York Times reported, Bishop Finn resisted removing him from ministry in order to, as he told some priests, “save Father Ratigan’s priesthood.”

The U.S. bishops’ “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” adopted in 2002, outlines the default response when a credible accusation is made about sexual abuse involving a priest. The details are reported to the police, and the priest is removed from ministry while an investigation takes place. If found guilty, he is removed permanently and is, in some cases, laicized. But what happens when his supervising bishop is found guilty of negligence or malfeasance? Catholics may wonder who determines whether the bishop will be removed, whether and how he is punished or does penance and whether the U.S. bishops’ conference or the papal nuncio has any say. So far it seems that any response is left up to the offending bishop himself. The initial response from Bishop Finn’s diocese was a statement saying he “looks forward to continuing to perform his duties.” But he may be unable to perform those duties if he is under a cloud. As there are clear directives regarding a priest (or a deacon, brother or sister) who has committed a crime related to sexual abuse, there must be equally clear directives about their bishops.

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