Is Bishop Finn above the law? Some Catholics say yes.

Why is it when religious leaders are accused, or even convicted, of abusing or neglecting children, the devout rush to defend them? Take the case of Bishop Robert Finn of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Diocese in Missouri. On October 14, Finn and the diocese were indicted for failing to report a priest who allegedly engaged in child pornography. (Fr. Shawn Ratigan faces 3 state child pornography charges and 13 federal charges for possessing, producing, and attempting to produce child pornography.)

Now, many Catholics are glad that Finn is being prosecuted. In an article for the Kansas City Star, a “cradle Catholic” teacher named Nancy Kelly Waters writes that she is “outraged” that the diocese denied wrongdoing and promised to mount a vigorous defense.

“Bishop Finn, what exactly are you planning to vigorously defend? Do you believe you are blameless? I believe you made a moral mistake when you knowingly let a suspected pedophile remain at large with no legal investigation merely because he worked for the church,” Waters writes.

In a letter to the editor of the Star, Greg Collins explains that he grew up as an alter boy who had not been abused. Collins says he will continue to attend church and to pray, “but I will pass on the collection plate until Bishop Finn steps down and comes clean.”

Bishop Robert Finn

But many other Catholics are eager to support Finn. They say he is being singled out, since other diocese employees—who knew even more about Ratigan’s prurient behavior than Finn and chose to do little more than wring their hands—have not been charged with any crimes.

Finn supporters point out that, once Ratigan was arrested, the bishop cooperated with the investigation and commissioned an independent review panel to investigate the diocese’s handling of abuse cases. Finally, these defenders rightly note, Finn should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

But is Finn deserving of a get-out-of-jail-free card? The bishop openly admitted that his diocese suffered from “serious lapses in communication” that have “caused us shame, anger, and confusion.” According to a report issued by the outside panel, Finn and other diocesan leaders failed to follow their own guidelines regarding the handling of abuse cases. Furthermore, Finn has yet to explain why

  • When Finn learned that a school principal had serious concerns that Fr. Shawn Ratigan had acted inappropriately with children, he did not read the principal’s report.
  • When he learned that there were disturbing photographs on Ratigan’s laptop, he did not view the photographs, even though the laptop was in the possession of the diocese.
  • He did not report the case to police, but, instead, moved Ratigan to a location where he would have limited contact with children, ordering him to have no contact with children and take no photographs of children.

Nicholas P. Cafardi

And yet, church officials have refused to speak out against Finn. In fact, their silence on the case has been so deafening that noted canon law scholar Nicholas P. Cafardi was compelled to tell the National Catholic Reporter that U.S. bishops should privately urge Finn to resign.

Catholic congregants, on the other hand, state their support for Finn loud and clear. This defense was evidenced by comments written in response to Greg Collins’ letter to the editor. Readers chastised him for refusing to tithe, even though his money could very well have ended up in the pockets of Finn’s lawyers.

One finger-wagging individual writes: “If you pass on the collection plate, you disregard your own duties as a christian [sic], which is what Bp Finn is being accused of. I KNOW. The actions are different but BOTH are a dereliction of duty.”

“Your passing on the collection plate. . . will hurt your own parish and your own walk with God,” says another.

Still another urges, “Our great Bishop Finn has apologized many times for any ‘lapse in judgement [sic]’.” The writer goes on to say, “As with all great leaders, he is dealing in a positive and effective way with a crisis situation.”

We have to ask, would these supporters have been just as forgiving of a CEO of a retail business who had been accused of protecting a pedophile, going so far as to oppose a boycott of the man’s business? It’s interesting to note that few supporters proclaim that Finn is actually innocent. And this got me thinking . . . In addition to the justifications mentioned earlier, could there be something embedded in the Catholic belief system that motivates worshipers to unquestionably support a bishop and other Catholic leaders swimming in scandal?

I believe there is. Simply put, some worshipers feel that Catholic authorities, regardless of what they’ve done or what they have been accused of having done, are above the law.

Catholics tend to not simply respect their leaders, they revere them, even worship them. It’s a dangerous stance that explains how so much abuse happens in the first place. As I note in Breaking Their Will, many children have been molested by priests because parents allowed those men to spend one-on-one time with the victims. Background checks were not even considered. And in many cases, when victims told their parents what Father so-and-so did, the children were not believed or were punished.

And it’s no wonder that parents have acted this way, for they, too, grew up believing that priests and bishops could do no wrong, and if they did misbehave, their actions would be dealt with inside the church. And who propagated this notion? The Roman Catholic Church, of course. While the pope and other church officials now strongly state that bishops should follow the law in reporting abuse cases, the church has historically made it its business to insulate its upper ranks from the law.

One woman’s comment on the Facebook page “Bishop Finn Must Go” epitomizes this pollyanna viewpoint: “A good priest follows the laws of God; His Word. There should be no need for civil law for the pope, cardinals, bishops and priests. The Word of the Lord supercedes any civil law.” (I asked the writer if she believed that clergy should not be put through the criminal justice system. She replied, saying that what she had meant was that Catholic leaders should be subject to civil law, but, in addition, they should also “hold themselves to a higher judgment”.)

Bishop Finn is not unfamiliar with cases of clergy-perpetrated child sexual abuse. In 2008, he settled with 47 plaintiffs in a $10 million lawsuit. I would venture to say that, what partly motivated Finn to keep the Ratigan matter within the diocese, rather than report the priest to civil authorities, was Finn’s belief that cases in which church authorities have been accused of child sexual abuse should generally be dealt with by church officials, not judges, prosecutors, and juries. Perhaps that mindset—that church authorities are above the law—is what Finn was talking about when he publicly stated, “Things must change. I also have to change.”

I believe Finn will change, even if he is exonerated. And, to his credit, I think he already has changed. After Ratigan was arrested, Finn met with parents at the school where the priest taught. There, Finn learned just how his own failure to stop the abuses had impacted people’s lives, as some parents wrote angry, anonymous notes to the bishop.

“The images of my daughter’s private areas that the FBI showed me, they are forever burned into my brain,” one parent writes. Another parent’s note cuts to the core: “That monster was in my house . . . to prey on my children and I let him in, since you felt you were above the law and made that decision not to turn in photos of my kids.”


  1. I’m glad you’re writing about this. When I first started reading about this a couple of weeks ago, I went and dug up some research about the history of the abuses in the Catholic Church, and I found a very lengthy petition that was recently filed in the International Justice Court by a large group of victims. It detailed all of the cases and included exhibits of internal church correspondence all the way up to the Pope

    The one thing I took away from all of that reading was that it is deeply ingrained in the church leaders — from the Cardinals to the Bishops to the Parish Priests — that avoiding scandal is the primary motivating force when it comes to decision making. It was shocking how many times the word scandal was mentioned in the correspondence. It was clear that protecting the Church’s reputation and image trumped the protection of individual children or potential victims.

    There also seemed to be a stark obliviousness to the legal obligations to report suspected child abuse to the police — as opposed to an outright or intentional obstruction of justice. As far as the moral obligation to report suspected abuse and to protect potential victims, the collective Church mindset is just so different from what we’re accustomed to; that mindset being that the overall good of the Church is what’s best for the congregants (collectively). Since avoidance of public scandal is perceived as what’s best for the Church, the secrecy and silence about abuse was justified as being best for the body of faithful at the expense of the individual victims and potential victims. From what I read, i think the Church leaders for the most part really believed this and really believed they were acting in the best interest of the collective faithful.

    What’s ironic and interesting is that the drive to avoid scandal is what created more scandal and continues to erode the reputation and image of the Church. Turns out the Church misjudged about what is best for the Church and its faithful.

    Let’s hope real change will take place now that it is all being exposed and leaders are being held accountable.

    • Natalie,
      You’ve hit on an insightful and key point that makes me want to call attention to two messages: One, controlling a culture so that it responds to the needs of the collective good is the hallmark of authoritarianism. As you know, my book points to religious authoritarianism as the red flag police, caseworkers, attorneys and others need to be aware of when trying to identify cases of religious child maltreatment. Two, pretty simple but…Allow morality to be our guide.
      Thanks for this valuable information.

  2. No mortal Man is above god law.

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