read that the attorney for Bishop Robert Finn is trying to get his client’s case thrown out, by convincing a judge that Finn was not responsible for reporting cases of child sexual abuse.
Finn, who heads the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese of Kansas City, Missouri, is the highest ranking member of the Catholic Church to face criminal charges for failing to report child abuse. In this case, the accused perpetrator is Father Shawn Ratigan, who allegedly took pornographic photographs of children and has been charged with thirteen counts of child pornography.
The charges against Ratigan and Finn came after a computer technician found hundreds of photographs of small children on Ratigan’s laptop computer. Many of the images focused on the crotch areas of clothed children; one series showed the exposed genitals of a girl believed to be three or four years old. Finn has acknowledged that a parish principal raised concerns about Ratigan’s behavior around children six months before Ratigan was reported. Finn also admits that he was told about the images on Ratigan’s computer several months before the report was made. Finn’s initial reaction was not to report Ratigan to police but to send him out of state for psychiatric evaluation.
Finn claims he was not obligated to report Ratigan to police, because church policy designated others do that. Specifically, Finn says those responsible are Vicar General Robert Murphy, the individual who eventually contacted police, and the diocese’s review board. According to Finn’s attorney, J.R. Hobbs, “Bishop Finn has no statutory duty to report because he was not the diocese’s designated agent,” pointing out that Finn “is not a member of the response team.”
In making his claim, Finn follows a long-held tradition within the Catholic Church of convincing public officials that clergy should not have to report cases of child abuse. As a result of powerful lobbying by Catholic officials, state statutes on mandatory reporting are weak and inconsistent at best. Many states provide “privileged communication” loopholes that permit clergy to avoid having to report if they hear about a case during confession. (And many church officials hoping to make such cases go away have defined confession very broadly.) Some states exempt clergy from having to report altogether.
Just as lawmakers have done the bidding of Big Oil and Big Tobacco in passing legislation that goes easy on those powerful entities, they have also done the bidding of Big Religion.
As a result, clergy make up a professional group that is one of the least likely to report child abuse. The laws are so confusing and poorly communicated to clergy that many priests do not know whether they are supposed to report or not. As I write in Breaking Their Will, clergy should be obligated to report suspected cases of abuse, just as lawyers, doctors, and schoolteachers are. After all, religious leaders are often privy to the most intimate of family matters and are, therefore, likely to hear about cases in which children are being harmed.
Thankfully, Missouri’s law is clearcut. It states that a “minister . . . or other person with the responsibility for the care of children” must immediately alert child protective services and law enforcement if he or she “has reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been or may be subjected to abuse or neglect or observes a child being subjected to conditions or circumstances which would reasonably result in abuse or neglect.” So it seems doubtful that Judge Torrence would decide that Finn was not obligated to turn in Ratigan. The fact that Finn is didn’t violate diocese policy is irrelevant; it would be like saying that a banker is not guilty of embezzling funds if the bank’s policies had no rule against embezzlement.
“No internal organizational structure can override the mandatory reporting laws,” says Ann Haralambie, an attorney in Tucson, Arizona, who specializes in family law. “There is nothing wrong with internal policies requiring the nursery worker or youth pastor to report to the senior pastor, but, under most statutes, including Missouri law, the person with the suspicion still must legally report to outside authorities, if the senior pastor doesn’t do so promptly.”
Yet we cannot underestimate the power of Big Religion. The ineffective mandatory reporting laws exemplify how this power has protected clergy, instead of child victims of abuse. And such power has infiltrated courtrooms, such as when judges allow religious organizations to seal human resources records as a way to hide evidence of clergy abuse coverups.
[UPDATE: Jackson County Circuit Judge John Torrence ruled that the trial would go forward, stating that the evidence in the case was “sufficient to allow a jury to conclude that Bishop Finn was a designated reporter as defined by Missouri law.” On September 6, 2012, Finn was found guilty of failing to tell police about the existence of Ratigan’s pornographic photographs.]