Report faults Catholic diocese in Ratigan investigation
By Judy L. Thomas and Glenn E. Rice, The Kansas City Star
For months after finding troubling images on a computer, the Catholic diocese tried on its own to deal with Father Shawn Ratigan.
As a result, a report released Thursday said, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph went off track, bungling its own investigation and failing to even follow its own policies.
An investigation by a former federal prosecutor found that “individuals in positions of authority reacted to events in ways that could have jeopardized the safety of children in diocesan parishes, schools and families.”
The diocese released the 141-page report compiled by the law firm of Todd Graves, which was hired by Bishop Robert Finn in June to evaluate how the diocese handles allegations against priests.
The report lists numerous recommendations for how the diocese can better protect children.
“Our investigation identified shortcomings, inaction and confusing procedures, but we believe Bishop Finn and the leadership of the diocese understand the gravity of the issues and take these recommendations seriously,” Graves said in a statement.
Graves told The Kansas City Star he was confident that the diocese would implement the recommendations.
“I believe they will adopt, if not every word of those recommendations, then nearly every single word of the recommendations going forward,” he said.
The diocese called for the investigation after enduring harsh criticism for failing to take immediate action when it first learned of questionable behavior involving Ratigan. Ratigan was charged in Clay County in May with three counts of possession of child pornography. A federal grand jury later charged him with 13 counts of production, attempted production and possession of child porn.
A Jackson County grand jury, now underway, is believed to be investigating how the diocese itself handled the Ratigan case.
Finn said in a statement Thursday that the recommendations were “comprehensive, thoughtful and detailed.”
“We understand their importance and are focusing on them so we establish clear, strong and unequivocal procedures for all diocesan personnel and volunteers that ensure the safety of our children today and into the future,” Finn said.
Critics responded swiftly to the report.
“Bishop Finn got what he paid for here: A misleading barrage of words that suggests some minor ‘tweaks’ in church policies will fix everything,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“These lawyers chalk up months of repeatedly self-serving secretive decisions by several top Catholic officials to just a few misunderstandings and miscommunications. that’s balderdash. The lawyers still act like adding some phrases to the official diocesan procedure manual will make some kind of difference. It won’t. Only vigorous action by police and prosecutors will make kids safer in the diocese,” Clohessy said.
But Jim Caccamo, chairman of the diocese’s review board, which assesses sexual abuse allegations, praised the report.
“The recommendations are sound and righteous and they all are necessary,” he said.
“In fact, some of those things are already happening. There are lots of people who are hurting and lots of people who want to get this resolved so these things don’t happen again. And I think the Graves report gets there.”
The Graves investigation was part of a five-point plan the diocese announced in June to address concerns of alleged sexual misconduct among its priests.
The investigation focused its response on reports of abuse by Ratigan and the Rev. Michael Tierney, a priest who was removed from ministry in June because of what the diocese said were credible accusations against him.
The investigation also looked at diocesan training programs that deal with preventing and reporting child abuse, and the effectiveness of the diocesan ethical code of conduct and sexual misconduct policies.
Among the report’s recommendations:
•Volunteers or employees of the diocese who receive allegations of current abuse involving a minor must report them to police and the Missouri Children’s Division, even if they aren’t mandated reporters.
•The diocesan ombudsman must be notified of allegations of both current and past sexual abuse of minors. The ombudsman also should be notified of allegations of sexual misconduct with minors and boundary violations.
•The ombudsman should immediately investigate all allegations.
•All allegations must be passed on to the Independent Review Board so it can determine their credibility and make a recommendation to the bishop. Some reviews of allegations will be expedited while the accused priest is placed on administrative leave.
•The diocese needs to do more to offer support to victims and to notify the public about priests who have been removed from ministry because of credible allegations against them.
The report provides new details about how diocesan officials handled the Ratigan case:
In May 2010, the principal at St. Patrick’s School in the Northland contacted Vicar General Robert Murphy to discuss concerns about Ratigan’s behavior around children. Murphy later met with Ratigan and admonished him.
In December, Ratigan complained to a parish office manager that he was experiencing problems with his laptop computer. An outside technician discovered nude photos and other disturbing images on the computer.
Later, a diocesan technician found hundreds of photographs of young children, primarily girls. Although some of the girls in the photos were clothed, the technician said the images were troubling.
Some photos showed girls in swimsuits climbing a slide ladder, taken from below. Still other photos showed girls wearing shorts in squatting positions with their legs spread and focused on their crotch areas.
Murphy phoned police Capt. Rick Smith, who is a member of the diocesan review board, and described one image of a nude girl, although Murphy himself had not yet seen the photo. Smith said the photo might meet the definition of child pornography but it was not likely based on Murphy’s description.
Smith told investigators he was shocked to learn later that there were hundreds of photos.
Diocesan officials also alerted their legal counsel, Jonathan Haden, about the photos.
Haden told church leaders that in his legal opinion, because a picture in question did not show sexual conduct, contact, performance or sexually explicit conduct, it was not child pornography.
However, the report cites law saying that sexually explicit conduct includes lascivious exhibition of the genitals.
Haden later told Graves’ team he had not seen all the photos.
Haden, who also has represented The Star, declined to comment on Thursday about the report.
The day after the church was notified about the images in December, Ratigan attempted suicide. He was found unconscious on the floor of his garage with his motorcycle running, a rosary in one hand and a cell phone in the other.
Doctors initially thought that Ratigan would not survive.
Finn, Murphy and others aware of the laptop did not consider removing Ratigan from the ministry or otherwise address the situation, “as his medical prognosis was so bleak,” the report said.
But Ratigan’s condition vastly improved.
He was sent to Pennsylvania for a psychiatric evaluation with a physician who specialized in treating priests for mental health issues. The doctor told Finn that Ratigan suffered from loneliness and depression.
The report said Finn and Murphy did not alert the review board because no identifiable victim in the photos complained. (The report notes, however, that children the age of those in the photos could not have complained.)
The diocese also made no attempt to alert the parents at St. Patrick’s about the photos found on Ratigan’s laptop. Finn said notifying the parents “would be like yelling fire in a crowded theater,” the report said.
Haden and at least one diocesan official advised Murphy to try to determine the identities of the children in the pictures in case Ratigan had abused them. Two officials said they told Murphy he should contact police, although Murphy told investigators he did not recall those conversations.
In the meantime, Finn assigned Ratigan to the Vincentian Mission House in Independence with instructions to avoid contact with children. Within a month he violated the restrictions, but Finn said he hadn’t determined a “breaking point” at which he would remove Ratigan from ministry.
In May, while Finn was out of town, Murphy decided to go to police because he was concerned Ratigan may have abused children, the report said.
The report found these problems with the diocese’s approach:
•The gatekeeping function in addressing child abuse reports within the diocese became consolidated into a single office, that of the vicar general.
• Murphy conducted his own limited and improperly conceived investigation instead of referring the case to the diocese’s Independent Review Board in a timely manner. “The flaws relating to Ratigan were more serious because neither Murphy nor Finn nor others with knowledge brought the matter to the full IRB (Independent Review Board) until after the arrest,” according to the report.
•Diocesan leaders relied on the judgments of others instead of their own review board.
•Finn misplaced his trust in Ratigan when the priest agreed to comply with restrictions the bishop placed on him.
“Although Bishop Finn was unaware of some important facts learned by Monsignor Murphy or that the police had never actually seen the pictures, the Bishop erred in trusting Father Ratigan to abide by restrictions the Bishop had placed on his interaction with children after the discovery of the laptop and Father Ratigan’s attempted suicide,” the report said.
Murphy, who was named vicar general when Finn took over as bishop in 2005, until recently had handled the diocese’s sex abuse complaints against priests and was on the diocesan review board. In June, however, the bishop replaced Murphy in his role of handling complaints against priests and also removed him from the review board. The action came two weeks after The Star reported that Murphy himself had been accused of past sexual improprieties.
Finn previously has acknowledged that he did not heed past warnings about Ratigan’s behavior and expressed regret about the handling of the case.
On Thursday, Finn said the decision to hire Graves’ law firm to conduct the investigation was necessary “to help me make the changes I promised on May 27.”
“The Graves report affirms the decision to establish and appoint an ombudsman,” Finn said. “Jennifer Valenti, appointed ombudsman in late June, is an experienced prosecutor and possesses the authority as gatekeeper to receive and investigate, independently, any complaint involving the sexual abuse of minors.”
The investigation took 60 days to complete, with Graves’ team interviewing more than 50 witnesses and examining thousands of pages of documents and emails that the diocese made available, according to the report.
Graves, a former United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri who has a long track record of prosecuting child pornography and exploitation cases, said the diocese cooperated with his team.
“Bishop Finn pledged to make all diocesan employees and records available for a complete and searching review,” Graves said. “Diocesan employees, clergy, and counsel cooperated fully in the investigation and made a good faith effort to fulfill that pledge.”
The diocese hired a law firm in June to investigate its handling of sexual abuse allegations against priests, focusing on the case of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan.
•The report says Vicar General Robert Murphy conducted his own improperly conceived investigation of Ratigan and went to police five months too late.
•The report says Bishop Robert Finn relied on limited advice before transferring Ratigan and put too much trust in Ratigan to stay away from children.
Among the report’s recomendations
•Volunteers or employees of the diocese who receive allegations of current abuse involving a minor must report the allegations to police and the Missouri Children’s Division.
•The diocesan ombudsman must be notified of allegations of both current and past sexual abuse of minors, and of allegations of sexual misconduct with minors and boundary violations.
•The ombudsman should immediately investigate all allegations.
•All allegations must be passed on to the Independent Review Board so it can determine credibility and make a recommendation to the bishop. Some reviews will be expedited while the accused priest is placed on administrative leave.
•The diocese needs to do more to offer support to victims and to notify the public about priests who have been removed from the ministry because of credible allegations against them.