KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A bishop in the Roman Catholic Church has been indicted for failure to report suspected child abuse, the first time in the 25-year history of the church’s sex abuse scandals that the leader of an American diocese has been held criminally liable for the behavior of a priest he supervised.
The indictment of the bishop, Robert W. Finn, and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph by a county grand jury was announced on Friday. Each was charged with one misdemeanor count involving a priest accused of taking pornographic photographs of girls as recently as this year. They pleaded not guilty.
The case caused an uproar among Catholics in Kansas City this year when Bishop Finn acknowledged that he knew of the photographs last December but did not turn them over to the police until May. During that time, the priest, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, is said to have continued to attend church events with children, and took lewd photographs of another young girl.
A decade ago the American bishops pledged to report suspected abusers to law enforcement authorities — a policy also recommended last year by the Vatican. Bishop Finn himself had made such a promise three years ago as part of a $10 million legal settlement with abuse victims in Kansas City.
Though the charge is only a misdemeanor, victims’ advocates immediately hailed the indictment as a breakthrough, saying that until now American bishops have avoided prosecution despite documents showing that in some cases they were aware of abuse.
“This is huge for us,” said Michael Hunter, director of the Kansas City chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and a victim of sexual abuse by a priest. “It’s something that I personally have been waiting for years to see, some real accountability. We’re very pleased with the prosecuting attorney here to have the guts to do it.” The bishop signaled he would fight the charges with all his strength. He said in a statement: “We will meet these announcements with a steady resolve and a vigorous defense.”
The indictment announced on Friday by the Jackson County prosecutor, Jean Peters Baker, had been under seal since Oct. 6 because the bishop was out of the country. He returned on Thursday night.
In a news conference, Ms. Baker said the case was not religiously motivated, but was about the obligation under state law to report child abuse.
“This is about protecting children,” she said.
If convicted Bishop Finn would face a possible fine of up to $1,000 and a jail sentence of up to a year. The diocese faces a possible fine of up to $5,000.
Ms. Baker said that secrecy rules for grand jury proceedings prohibited her from discussing whether other charges were considered, such as child endangerment, a felony. But she said the fact that the bishop faces a single misdemeanor count should not diminish the seriousness.
“To my knowledge a charge like this has not been leveled before,” she said.
It also may not mark the end of the legal troubles facing the diocese in the case, which includes civil and criminal cases in federal court. Last month Bishop Finn and Msgr. Robert Murphy testified before another grand jury in neighboring Clay County. A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office there declined to comment.
The priest accused of taking the lewd photos, Father Ratigan, was a frequent presence in a Catholic elementary school next to his parish. The principal there sent a letter to the diocese in May 2010 complaining about Father Ratigan’s behavior with children. Then, last December, a computer technician discovered the photos on the priest’s laptop and turned the computer in to the diocese. A day later Father Ratigan tried to kill himself. The diocese said that Monsignor Murphy described — but did not share — a single photo of a young girl, nude from the waist down, to a police officer who served on an independent sexual abuse review board for the diocese. The officer said that based on the description it might meet the definition of child pornography, but he did not think it would, the diocese said.
Bishop Finn sent Father Ratigan to live in a convent and told him to avoid contact with minors. But until May the priest attended children’s parties, spent weekends in the homes of parish families, hosted an Easter egg hunt and presided, with the bishop’s permission, at a girl’s First Communion, according to interviews with parishioners and a civil lawsuit filed by a victim’s family.
Parents in the school and parishioners — told only that Father Ratigan had fallen sick from carbon monoxide poisoning — were stunned when he was arrested in May after the diocese called the police. He was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of taking indecent photographs of young girls.
The new indictment released on Friday said that Bishop Finn and the diocese had reason to suspect that Father Ratigan might subject a child to abuse.
It cited “previous knowledge of concerns regarding Father Ratigan and children; the discovery of hundreds of photographs of children on Father Ratigan’s laptop, including a child’s naked vagina, upskirt images and images focused on the crotch; and violations of restrictions placed on Father Ratigan.”
Bishop Finn said in his statement on Friday that he and the diocese had given “complete cooperation” to law enforcement. He also pointed to steps he had taken since the scandal first became public, including commissioning a report to look into the case, and reinforcing procedures for handling allegations of abuse.
That report found that the diocese did not follow its own procedures. It also found that Bishop Finn was “too willing to trust” Father Ratigan.
The case has generated fury at the bishop, a staunch theological conservative who was already a polarizing figure in his diocese. Since the Ratigan case came to light, there have been widespread calls for him to resign.
Contributing to the sense of betrayal is the fact that only three years ago, Bishop Finn settled lawsuits with 47 plaintiffs in sexual abuse cases for $10 million and agreed to a list of 19 preventive measures, among them to immediately report anyone suspected of being a pedophile to the law enforcement authorities.
France may be the only country where a bishop has been convicted for his failure to supervise a priest accused of abuse, said Terrence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, a victims’ advocacy group that tracks abuse cases.
A grand jury in Philadelphia indicted a top official in the archdiocese there, Msgr. William Lynn, for mishandling cases of abuse. The former archbishop, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, was not indicted, but he has been called to testify.