As I suspected, yesterday's bench trial conviction of Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn was a guilty plea in all but name. The "Stipulation of Testimony" presented by prosecution and defense to Jackson County Circuit Court Judge John Torrance concludes by identifying the bishop as a "mandatory reporter" under Missouri Law, responsible for notifying civil authorities when there is "reasonable cause to suspect" one of his subordinates of child abuse.
By stipulating that, Finn gave up what would have been the cornerstone of his defense. Had a jury found that he was indeed a reporter (as the judge ruled in April was its business to decide), it would have had little choice but to convict.
Moreover, the requirements of Finn's two-year probationary sentence make clear that establishing reporting responsibility was precisely what Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker was aiming at. The first requirement is: "Ensuring 'mandated reporter' training for clergy and diocesan administrative staff, and instructing all teachers, counselors, clergy and other diocesan agents to report suspected crimes against children, as required by state law." The last: "Personally complying with mandated reporter laws."
In her post-conviction statement, Baker drove home the point:
The bottom line today is that finding by the court, a finding of guilt, means the diocese and whoever is its leader must adhere to the very clear legal requirements regarding protection of children. ...I told you [when the charges were first filed] this case had absolutely nothing to do with the Catholic church or Catholic faith, and I maintain that pledge to you today. This was about the failings of a leader of an organization.
The importance of establishing that Catholic bishops have the same legal obligation to report suspected child abuse as any other supervisor in society cannot be overemphasized. Since Imperial Rome permitted bishops to adjudicate the criminal misbehavior of priests 1,600 years ago, they have seen themselves as having special discretionary authority. Finn's criminal conviction says otherwise.
Unfortunately, Finn himself could not manage to acknowledge his guilt in failing to report the suspected abusive priest, Rev. Shawn Ratigan. The best he could choke out to the court was, "I truly regret and am sorry for the hurt these events caused.” Defense counsel's statement was no better: "The diocesan process and procedures as previously existed failed to adequately identify the necessity to inform the Children's Division of Shawn Ratigan's behavior in a more timely manner. For this, the bishop is truly sorry."
The lightness of Finn's sentence--unsupervised probation--bothers me less than that he wasn't required to say something like, "I apologize for failing to obey the law and to report our suspicions of Ratigan as soon as I became aware of them." If Bishop R. Daniel Conlon of Joliet, Ill., the bishops' point man on sexual abuse, wants to know why the bishops' credibility in this department is (as he recently admitted) "shredded," it's precisely because of their inability to own up to their culpability in covering up abuse and to their legal obligation to report it.
Of course, in the Catholic Church, the buck stops in Rome. A bishop in the United States has now been found to have committed a crime--the very crime that has, over the years, enabled many, many priests to continue to sexually abuse children entrusted to their care. The Vatican is not shy about getting rid of bishops when it believes they have misbehaved. The measure of how serious it is about addressing the sexual abuse crisis and repairing the church's reputation is whether it procedes to remove Bishop Finn from office forthwith.