Kansas City diocese settles lawsuit involving Ratigan photos

The Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese has settled a civil lawsuit involving a priest convicted last year of producing child pornography.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court against the diocese, Bishop Robert Finn and the Rev. Shawn Ratigan by the parents of a young northern Missouri girl, was settled Tuesday for $600,000, attorneys for the girl’s family said.

It is the diocese’s largest settlement in a single priest sex abuse case, they said.

“It was good for the family and I’m sure it was good for the diocese to get this resolved,” said Gregg Meyers of Jeff Anderson & Associates in St. Paul, Minn., one of the family’s attorneys. “There are other cases and I don’t know we’re at the end of this yet. But we’re at the beginning of the end.”

Diocesan spokesman Jack Smith confirmed the amount of the settlement but said the structure of the agreement still needed to be approved by a judge. He said the settlement, reached with the girl and her parents, would be covered by insurance.

The civil suit also named Ratigan as a defendant, but he never responded to the action. The lawsuit had been scheduled for a trial starting on Monday.

The pornography scandal exploded after a computer technician discovered hundreds of lewd photos of young girls on Ratigan’s laptop in December 2010. A Jackson County judge found Finn guilty last summer of failing to report suspicions of child abuse to police or state child welfare authorities after the discovery of the photographs, a misdemeanor.

The civil suit settled Tuesday alleged that Ratigan took sexually explicit photographs of the girl, uploaded them to his computer and distributed them over the Internet. It also contended that Finn and the diocese possessed and distributed child pornography by viewing and making copies of Ratigan’s photos.

The lawsuit cited Masha’s Law, a federal law enacted in 2006 that gives child pornography victims the right to sue anyone who produces, downloads, distributes or possesses sexually explicit images of them. Under the law, victims can recover damages of no less than $150,000.

Ratigan is awaiting sentencing in federal court after pleading guilty last August to taking pornographic pictures of the girl, who then was about 2 years old, in a Buchanan County church in May 2006.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Gary Fenner sharply limited the claims that the victim could make against the diocese and Finn in the civil case, dismissing one of two counts.

The victim, known as Jane Doe 173, would not have been able to present evidence that Finn and the diocese aided and abetted Ratigan in his possession of lewd images of her. Fenner wrote that federal law restricted aiding and abetting to assistance offered before or during the commission of the crime.

Fenner dismissed any claims based on images of Jane Doe 173 taken from electronic media collected by Ratigan’s brother from the priest’s home after he underwent psychiatric treatment in January 2011. Fenner also ruled that a photo of the girl’s bare bottom did not meet the definition of child pornography.

Finn and the diocese still faced a civil count alleging that they received, possessed or distributed pornographic images of Jane Doe 173. Jurors could have been asked to determine if three images of the girl were pornographic and whether Finn and the diocese deliberately chose to ignore clear evidence that the images constituted child pornography.

Finn and the diocese also are named as defendants in three other pending civil lawsuits involving Ratigan — two in Jackson County and one in Clay County. A fourth, filed in U.S. District Court, was dismissed on Wednesday, lawyers said, because pictures of the alleged victim did not constitute pornography. The diocese still faces dozens of civil lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by other priests.

In 2008, the diocese settled a case for $10 million that involved 47 plaintiffs who alleged sexual abuse by 12 priests.

Sarah Brown of Randles, Mata & Brown, the Kansas City firm helping with the case settled Tuesday, said the family is relieved to have the issue resolved.

“I’m very pleased that the family is able to put this behind them and start moving forward with healing,” she said.

© The Kansas City Star