priestshhh.jpgAs you may have noticed, Clay County, Mo. has let Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn accept a diversion program rather than be indicted for a second time in the case of one of his priests found with child pornography on  his computer. (Finn still faces a criminal indictment in Jackson County.) Reacting to the deal, which requires the bishop to meet regularly with the Clay County prosecutor, Catholic League President Bill Donohue contends:

In an ideal world, there would have been no charges whatsoever: there
was no complainant and no violation of law. Quite unlike the Penn State
situation, where alleged victims have come forward, no one has come
forward in this case. Prosecutors have to be careful not to set the bar
too low, because otherwise they will need an army of attorneys to police
cases of suspected molestation that occur in public, as well as
private, institutions.

I’m trying to figure out the workings of that ideal world.

Let’s begin by considering what happened in this one. In May of 2010, the principal of a Catholic elementary school in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese sent a letter to the diocese complaining that the local priest, Rev. Shawn Ratigan, was behaving inappropriately with children. In December, a technician discovered hundred of indecent photos of children on Ratigan’s computer and turned the computer in to the diocese. A day later, Ratigan tried to kill himself. Subsequently a diocesan official described–but did not display–a single photograph of a nude girl to a police officer who sat on the diocesan sexual abuse review board. The officer said the image might be pornographic but expressed no alarm. Then:

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.

After a federal grand jury indicted Ratigan on charges of taking indecent photographs of young girls, the Jackson County grand jury charged him and his diocese with the Class A Misdemeanor of Failure of Mandated Reporter to Report, inasmuch as they were “mandated reporters” and “had reasonable cause to suspect that a child may be subjected to abuse due to: previous knowledge of concerns regarding Father Ratigan’s behavior with children; the discovery of hundreds of photographs 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; and knowingly failed to immediately report such suspected abuse to the Missouri Children’s Division.”

For the record, here’s the statutory language on mandatory reporting of child abuse in the Missouri Revised Statutes 210.115:

When any physician, medical examiner, coroner, dentist,
chiropractor, optometrist, podiatrist, resident, intern, nurse, hospital or
clinic personnel that are engaged in the examination, care, treatment or
research of persons, and any other health practitioner, psychologist, mental
health professional, social worker, day care center worker or other
child-care worker, juvenile officer, probation or parole officer, jail or
detention center personnel, teacher, principal or other school official,
minister as provided by section 352.400, peace officer or law enforcement
official, or other person with responsibility for the care of children has
reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been or may be subjected to
abuse or neglect or observes a child being subjected to conditions or
circumstances which would reasonably result in abuse or neglect, that person
shall immediately report or cause a report to be made to the division in
accordance with the provisions of sections 210.109 to 210.183. As used in
this section, the term “abuse” is not limited to abuse inflicted by a person
responsible for the child’s care, custody and control as specified in section
210.110, but shall also include abuse inflicted by any other person.

“Minister” is defined in 352.400 as “any person while practicing as a minister of the gospel,
clergy person, priest, rabbi, Christian Science practitioner, or other person
serving in a similar capacity for any religious organization who is
responsible for or who has supervisory authority over one who is responsible
for the care, custody, and control of a child or has access to a child.”

So there can be no question that Bishop Finn is a mandated reporter, and no question that he failed to make an immediate report to the appropriate state authority. The only open question, so far as I can see, is whether the circumstances were such that Finn had reasonable cause to suspect Ratigan of abusing a child. Based on the facts as given, I’d say yes; but that’s for a jury to decide.

Back to Donohue. According to him, there should have been no indictments because there was 1) “no complainant”; and 2) “no violation of law.” Evidently, he thinks that no one ought to be indicted for failing to report suspected child abuse unless someone makes a formal charge of abuse (that’s what defines a “complainant”) and there’s an actual determination of criminal culpabiilty. In other words, a mandatory reporter could only be charged with failure to report a suspicion of child abuse after an alleged victim has come forward, lodged a criminal complaint as well as informing the reporter, and the complaint has been determined to be true. Merely having “reasonable cause to suspect that a child has been or may be subjected to
abuse or neglect”–such as by receiving a report of inappropriate behavior from one of your school principals and finding hundreds of indecent photographs–would no longer subject a mandatory reporter to criminal prosecution.

The whole point of a mandatory reporting law is to provide the authorities with information that enables them to prevent or put a stop to child abuse as soon as possible. If mandatory reporters cannot be prosecuted for failure to report reasonable suspicions unless an alleged perpetrator is actually found guilty, they will be under less pressure to call him to the attention of the authorities–and having failed to do so, will acquire an additional incentive to keep him from being brought to justice. That’s Donohue’s ideal world.

Categories: Beliefs

Mark Silk

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

2 Comments

  1. Thanks for this, Mark. In MY ideal world, leaders in organized religions would be living what they preach and not raping or sodomizing children, let alone covering up for those who do so. FYI, there’s a story in the KC Star today that reports that Finn sent Ratigan to a psychiatrist (for two days) to be evaluated. The psychiatrist is a member of Opus Bono Sacerdoti. Here’s the link:
    http://www.kansascity.com/2011/11/16/3270664/psychiatrist-who-examined-ratigan.html

  2. Bill Donahue’s “ideal world” is of course the ancient and still moribund world of clerical privilege, discovered by Emperor Constantine and Pope Sylvester long before the earth was flat.
    That view is almost as anachronistic as Mr. Donahue himself, and much more out of place.

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