ROME — In what is likely to be hailed as major step toward accountability for Catholic bishops who mishandle sexual abuse allegations, the Vatican has announced the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
The announcement came Tuesday in a brief statement in the Vatican’s daily news bulletin, released at noon Rome time. Finn, whose resignation is effective immediately, will remain a bishop, but no longer lead a diocese. Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City-Kansas has been appointed as the apostolic administrator of Finn’s diocese until Pope Francis names Finn’s successor.
Finn, 62, is the lone American bishop ever to be found guilty of a criminal charge for failure to report an accusation of child abuse. His September 2012 conviction on a misdemeanor charge stemmed from Finn waiting several months before telling police that explicit images of young girls had been discovered on the computer of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, one of his priests.
Finn was sentenced to two years of probation, and the diocese received a fine of $1.1 million when an arbitrator ruled that it had violated the terms of an earlier settlement.
The fact that Finn has remained in office for almost three years after the outcome has been a central bone of contention for critics who regard the Catholic Church’s official “zero tolerance” policy on abuse as inadequate as long as there aren’t consequences for managers who fail to implement it.
The case for Finn’s ouster was considered especially strong by many Church-watchers because unlike complaints against other bishops for how they handled abuse cases decades ago, his situation came after the US bishops had adopted a strong anti-abuse protocol in 2002.
Calls for his removal have come from a wide range of quarters, including some of the closest advisors to Pope Francis on anti-abuse efforts.
In a November interview with “60 Minutes,” Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston agreed that under the zero tolerance policy, he wouldn’t let Finn even teach Sunday school in Boston, let alone head a diocese.
In a Crux interview over the weekend, Irish laywoman and abuse survivor Marie Collins, a member of a papal anti-abuse commission headed by O’Malley, echoed that sentiment.
“I cannot understand how Bishop Finn is still in position, when anyone else with a conviction that he has could not run a Sunday school in a parish,” Collins said. “He wouldn’t pass a background check.”
“I don’t know how anybody like that could be left in charge of a diocese,” Collins said.
In September 2014, Pope Francis commissioned Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa, Canada, to lead an official Vatican investigation of the situation surrounding Finn. About two dozen people in Kansas City were interviewed, and Prendergast eventually submitted a report to the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops.
Though the content of the report was never released, a source familiar with the case told Crux on background in February 2015 that Prendergast delivered a mixed assessment that did not directly recommend removing Finn from office.
The source said Pope Francis requested an additional assessment of the report from other officials.
The Finn situation is not the only abuse controversy being watched by victims and advocacy groups; in Chile, protests have erupted over Francis’ appointment of a bishop with connections to that country’s most notorious pedophile priest. The Rev. Fernando Karadima was sanctioned by the Vatican in 2011 and ordered to live out his life cloistered in a nun’s convent.
The appointment of Bishop Juan Barros Madrid to the small Osorno diocese was decried by some parishioners upset that he had initially defended Karadima. Later, three victims said he was present when Karadima abused them, an allegation Barros has denied.
A controversial bishop
A Missouri native, Finn is a member of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross, a group founded by the Catholic organization Opus Dei. He became the co-adjutor bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph in 2004, a term in Church law that means he would automatically succeed to the top post. He took over the diocese from ailing Bishop Raymond Bolan in 2005.
Even before the Ratigan case erupted, Finn was a controversial figure. Under Bolan, Kansas City-St. Joseph had a national reputation for empowering lay leadership in Catholicism, but within a week of his succession, Finn fired both the chancellor and vice-chancellor, canceled its lay formation program, and slashed the budget of its Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry.
Finn also imposed new controls on diocesan media and ordered its newspaper to stop carrying a column by the Rev. Richard McBrien, a popular liberal commentator.
While those moves stirred political controversy, the Ratigan case made Finn synonymous with the Church’s broader sexual abuse scandals.
Complaints against Ratigan began to surface in 2009, as parents became concerned he was spending too much time with children and taking too many photos of the youths while they played and participated in Church events.
In May 2010, a principal at a Catholic school where Ratigan served wrote a detailed five-page memo to diocesan officials outlining concerns about the priest’s conduct, though she did not report a concrete charge of abuse.
Finn’s top deputy received the letter and spoke with Ratigan about setting boundaries with children, then gave a summary to the bishop. Finn later acknowledged that he had been briefed on the memo, but said he didn’t read it until a year later.
In December 2010, a computer technician working on Ratigan’s laptop discovered images of girls aged 3 to 12 and reported the finding to diocesan officials. Those officials contacted a police officer and the diocesan attorney the next day, both of whom said that the images did not constitute child pornography and thus there was no crime to report either to a diocesan review board or to the police.
After learning that his images had been discovered, Ratigan attempted suicide. After his recovery, Finn sent Ratigan for psychiatric evaluation, then placed various restrictions on his ministry including staying away from children.
Finn eventually reported Ratigan to the police when he violated those conditions, leading to his arrest in May 2011. He was charged with producing, or trying to produce, child pornography, and was sentenced to 50 years in prison in 2013.
The diocese issued a statement on Finn’s behalf after Ratigan’s sentencing, apologizing for the priest’s actions and saying many steps had been taken to protect children since his arrest.
“To victims of abuse, their families and the community at large, I renew my heartfelt apology and firm pledge to make our Catholic institutions second to none in the protection of children and the vulnerable,” Finn said in the statement.
Finn was indicted for failure to report in October 2011, and after a one-day bench trial, he was found guilty by a judge on one misdemeanor charge. The judge ruled there was insufficient evidence to convict on another.
There was no immediate word on Tuesday concerning what Finn might do after his resignation.