What’s the State of the Church’s Child Abuse Crisis?

By Sarah Childress
February 25, 2014

The first report that church officials received about Father Shawn Ratigan, compiled by a Kansas City Catholic school principal in May 2010, was troubling.

Ratigan had taken hundreds of photographs of children, Julie Hess, the principal, wrote to church officials. He had tried to interact with kids on Facebook, and sometimes had physical contact with children in ways that appeared to other adults to be “boundary violations.”A pair of girl’s underwear was found in a planter in his backyard.

Parents and staff, Hess said, were “discussing whether he is a child molester.”

Bishop Robert Finn, who had authority over Ratigan, didn’t alert the police then, according to court documents. (Finn would later say he had only received a verbal summary of the letter from a deputy at the time.) He also didn’t call the police several months later, when a computer technician found hundreds of lewd photos of children on Ratigan’s laptop, most of which appeared to have been taken by a personal camera.

Instead, the laptop was turned over to the diocesan lawyer, and Finn called a psychiatrist, who said he thought he could help with Ratigan’s “severe loneliness that has caused this problem.”

In the meantime, as subsequent civil lawsuits would show, Ratigan continued to take photographs of young girls’ genitals.

Ratigan was arrested in May 2011 for possession of child pornography. He pleaded guilty to five counts of producing or attempting to produce child pornography, and was sentenced to 50 years in prison.

Finn, who argued in court that because others in the diocese were tasked with reporting abuse he didn’t have a legal obligation to do so, was convicted in 2012 for failing to report Ratigan to the police, and given two years’ probation.

He is still the bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese, in good standing with the Catholic Church.

That, say former priests and victims’ advocates, represents the state of the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church today. More than three decades after the initial reports of abuse began to emerge, critics say that many bishops, who have authority over their areas of responsibility, known as dioceses or eparchies, seem more committed to protecting the church than preventing abuse.

The Vatican defrocked nearly 400 priests from 2011-2012 who abused children, according to Vatican figures. But while several bishops have resigned in connection with sex abuse scandals, of those who ignored offenders’ behavior or even intervened to protect them, a scant few have been otherwise disciplined by the Vatican.

“That’s the crux of the crisis,” said David Clohessy, the national director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, a victims’ advocacy group. If the bishops have impunity, he said, “there’s no incentive for them to reform. It’s not even in their self-interest to reform.”


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