Kansas City Diocese Questions Legality, Accuracy of Abuse Penalty
Catholic World Report
July 3, 2014
Attorneys for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph have questioned the legality of a $1 million abuse penalty against the diocese, criticizing “numerous factual inaccuracies” in an arbitrator’s ruling.
A June 20 motion from the diocese asks the circuit court of Jackson County, Mo., to “vacate, modify or correct” arbitrator Hollis Hanover’s decision to award the money to the plaintiffs from a 2008 legal settlement.
Hanover justified the decision on the ground that the diocese violated a prior legal agreement by not promptly reporting a priest who had taken pornographic photographs of young girls.
The arbitrator’s decision concerned an agreement reached after a 2008 $10 million settlement with 47 abuse victims or their family members, the Kansas City Star reports. As part of that settlement, the diocese’s head, Bishop Robert Finn, agreed to report suspected child abusers to law enforcement.
The arbitrator ruled that this agreement was violated in the diocese’s response to a sexually abusive priest in a separate legal case, that of Father Shawn Ratigan.
Fr. Ratigan, a diocesan priest, was sentenced to 50 years in prison for producing child pornography. Diocesan officials belatedly reported him to police in mid-2011 after finding problematic images of young girls on his computer in late 2010.
Attorneys for the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese asked the court to void the decision on the grounds that the arbitrator failed to follow the arbitration terms and limitations. The motion also contended that the Kansas City court must modify or correct the penalty “because of the arbitrator’s unwillingness to correct clear errors.”
“The largest number of factual errors concerned statements the Arbitrator made concerning the actions or inactions attributable to Bishop Finn who was found to have no personal liability,” the diocese’s motion said.
The diocese’s attorneys said that the arbitrator’s errors include the claim that Bishop Finn knew the pornographic nature of the images, which he did not see. They said the bishop relied on the opinion of the diocese’s attorney and the opinion of his vicar general, who had told him a review board member who was also a police officer had ruled they did not constitute child pornography.
In September 2012, Bishop Finn was convicted on a misdemeanor account of failure to report suspected child abuse in the Fr. Ratigan case. He was sentenced to two years of probation with a suspended sentence. The bishop apologized and pledged to take “every reasonable step” to protect children from abuse and misconduct committed by clergy, diocesan employees or volunteers.
Fr. Ratigan was first exposed in December 2010, when a computer technician found inappropriate images of children on the priest’s laptop. The priest was then removed from ministry, but he attempted suicide after diocesan officials told him of the discovery of the images. He was not expected to live, but later recovered.
Bishop Finn delegated the investigation of sex abuse claims against the priest to the diocese’s then-vicar general. The vicar general conducted what a diocese-commissioned independent investigation later called “a limited and improperly conceived investigation” into whether a single image, which the vicar general did not see, constituted child pornography. The diocese’s legal counsel also said that that single image did not constitute child pornography.
The vicar general did not contact law enforcement about the images until May 2011, after which Fr. Ratigan was arrested.
The diocese settled two lawsuits from parents of two girls photographed by Fr. Ratigan for a total of $1.8 million in February 2014.
Diocese communications director Jack Smith told CNA July 2 that the diocese cannot presently comment on the legal action because the matter is pending in court.