By Jack Smith
Catholic Key Editor
KANSAS CITY — Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph officials are being faulted by parishioners and media for failing to more vigorously pursue allegations of suspicious and improper behavior made against a priest now charged with possession of child pornography.
In a number of forums over the last two weeks, Bishop Robert Finn expressed regret for the way the diocese handled information it received about the activities of Father Shawn Ratigan. “Things must change,” Bishop Finn said at a press conference May 22. “I also have to change.”
In response to listening throughout the community, Bishop Finn initially has determined to expand the role of the Independent Review Board to include receiving and evaluating reports of misconduct which fall outside the scope set by the U.S. Bishops for such boards in their 2002 Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
In addition, Bishop Finn said he will consult with others to determine how best to change the internal structure and procedures of the diocesan curia in order to more effectively respond to reports of improper conduct by diocesan clergy and employees.
In mid-December, 2010, a laptop belonging to then St. Patrick Pastor Father Shawn Ratigan was turned into diocesan officials after a computer technician had found disturbing photos on the hard drive.
The photos included pictures of female children at parish events, some shot, apparently surreptitiously, up-skirt. In addition, there was a very disturbing photo of a naked female child. The child was not identifiable because her face did not appear in the picture.
Diocesan Vicar General Monsignor Robert Murphy then called a ranking Kansas City police officer and described this photo. In addition, the photos were provided to diocesan legal counsel. Both the police officer and legal counsel opined that the photos did not constitute child pornography as they did not contain sexual conduct or contact as defined by Missouri law.
On the same day, Fr. Ratigan was called. He was told to appear the next day at the chancery. Fr. Ratigan did not arrive at the chancery. Instead, the next morning he was found unconscious in his garage with his motorcycle running.
When Fr. Ratigan regained consciousness several days after this suicide attempt, he was placed in a psychiatric unit to minimize the chances of a further suicide attempt. According to a May 20 statement by Bishop Finn, Ratigan was then sent for further psychiatric evaluation out of state.
Although physically recovered, Fr. Ratigan was not allowed to return to St. Patrick and he was removed from pastoral duties there. After various evaluations and a stay at his mother’s house, in mid-February Fr. Ratigan was allowed live and pay rent at a Vincentian priest residence. According to Bishop Finn, Fr. Ratigan was allowed to say Mass at the adjacent Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist community, but was otherwise restricted in his activities. He was not allowed a camera or computer and he was not allowed to attend events where children were present.
On May 12, after repeated reports that Fr. Ratigan had violated these restrictions, Msgr. Murphy again contacted the police officer he had originally contacted in December. When Msgr. Murphy relayed ongoing concerns about Fr. Ratigan’s violation of the restrictions placed upon him, the officer facilitated a report to the Cyber Crimes Against Children Unit.
According to a “Probable Cause Statement” prepared by Detective Maggie McGuire of the Cyber Crimes unit, Fr. Ratigan was taken into custody on May 18 and kept on an investigative hold.
The next day, detectives obtained a search warrant for items belonging to Fr. Ratigan which had been held at his family’s home following Ratigan’s suicide attempt. In those items, detectives found an optical disk with 14 different images of child pornography and a Rocketfish hard drive with four images of child pornography. That same day, Ratigan was charged with three counts of possession of child pornography in Clay County.
On May 20, at a forum with St. Patrick parishioners and in a public statement, Bishop Finn said, “I deeply regret that we didn’t ask the police earlier to conduct a full investigation.”
At the forum at St. Patrick, it became apparent that numerous parents and school administrators had long harbored suspicions about Fr. Ratigan’s conduct around children.
On May 26, Kansas City blogger Tony Botello obtained and posted a memo written by St. Patrick School Principal Julie Hess. The contents of the May 19, 2010 memo were quickly picked up by other news organizations.
The memo described parents’ and teachers’ many concerns about Fr. Ratigan’s conduct around children and his refusal to abide by the personal boundaries taught to and expected by all church employees.
Principal Hess presented the memo to Msgr. Murphy on May 19, 2010. At a press conference last Friday, Bishop Finn said that he read the memo for the first time when it was released by the press on May 26.
Asked what he felt after reading the memo, Bishop Finn said, “from a human standpoint, I felt great shame. I was ashamed at the fact we had not done enough to respond to that.”
Bishop Finn said that in the days after receiving the report in May, 2010, “Msgr. Murphy gave me a brief verbal summary of the report and his meeting with Shawn Ratigan, which had occurred immediately after the report was received.”
“Hindsight makes it clear that I should have requested from Msgr. Murphy an actual copy of the report,” Bishop Finn said. He explained that “at the time of the May 2010 report, we had no knowledge of any inappropriate photographs or images in Shawn Ratigan’s possession.”
Until this case, all of the accusations against priests described offenses from decades ago, Bishop Finn told the Catholic Key. “When we made the 2008 settlement on 47 complaints of child abuse, they were all against priests who were no longer serving.”
“I believe that the study and the adjustments that we are going to have to make as a diocese may be comparable to the changes our country had to make after 9-11,” Bishop Finn said. “Our desire, our determination, our attitude, all these things have to change.”
Bishop Finn said he has already discussed an expanded role for the Independent Review Board with its chairman, Jim Caccamo. The Review Board is scheduled to meet June 1 to begin discussions about needed changes.
Bishop Finn also said that the diocese has had some initial discussions about forming a panel of outside experts “who would help us review procedures and reporting methods.”