The buck stops where? Sex abuse and the bishops

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The biggest question in the sex abuse crisis is why some bishops still have their jobs.

It could have come out of any newspaper’s police blotter: Adult male arrested for possessing child pornography. The detail that took it from the blotter to the front page was the fact that the offender, Shawn Ratigan, is a priest, and that the diocesan bishop, Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, had quietly transferred Ratigan from a parish to a women’s monastery last December without notifying the diocesan review board.

It wasn’t until May that the diocese’s vicar general reported the case to the police because Ratigan had had contact with a family with young children in his former parish. It was soon after discovered that a year earlier the principal of the parish school where Ratigan was associate pastor had written a detailed letter documenting his inappropriate behavior. The diocese took no action.

Almost 10 years after the sex abuse crisis erupted in Boston, the Finn-Ratigan case leaves many Catholics somewhere between dumbstruck and outraged. Then again, 2011 has hardly been a quiet year on the sex abuse front. In March the Jesuits of the Pacific Northwest declared bankruptcy with $166 million in liabilities related to sex abuse, followed in April by the North American province of the Christian Brothers.

In Philadelphia, a damning February grand jury report detailing the rape of a child by both a priest and a lay youth minister resulted in charges against them and three other priests. The report also revealed that 37 priests had credible allegations of abuse against them but were still in ministry; Cardinal Justin Rigali suspended 21 of them just before Easter, but he did not suspend himself after his chancery had failed to inform his review board of the allegations.

In May the John Jay Criminal College released its evaluation of the “causes and contexts” of clergy sex abuse with the general conclusion that it is a crime of opportunity best prevented by education and institutional policies that keep children out of danger. But what the study could not answer is why, nearly a decade after the Boston debacle, bishops still fail to follow their own policies and, further, why their failures do not result in their dismissal from office.

On the contrary, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago was elected president of the conference of bishops after he failed to act on recommendations from his own lay review board in the 2004 case of Father Daniel McCormack, who abused young boys in his poor West Side parish of St. Agatha. Robert Vasa, the former bishop of Baker, Oregon, was “promoted” to a larger diocese, Santa Rosa, California, in January despite the fact that he refused to implement the USCCB Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in Baker, one of only two Latin rite dioceses to refuse. (The other is Lincoln, Nebraska.) No one expects Rigali in Philadelphia to resign, and Finn in Kansas City seems intent on hanging on: “Don’t trust me. Trust our Lord Jesus Christ, trust his church,” he said, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

If I were a member of the church of Kansas City, my answer would be simple: I don’t trust you, Bishop Finn. You are the problem, and you simply must go.

No amount of apologies or prayer and fasting in penance for sex abuse will make up for the fact that too many bishops have simply shown themselves incompetent to lead on this matter. After $2 billion in settlements, 10 years in crisis mode, and decades of suffering by victims, there can be no more excuses. Any bishop who has failed to respond appropriately to allegations of child sex abuse must simply resign, and all levers of pressure, from the pope to other bishops, from the police to protesters, must be applied until they do.

At their June meeting the U.S. bishops modified the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People to include child pornography and the abuse of those with mental illness or developmental disability. That document has done much to make the church a safer place, thanks largely to the work of the dedicated laypeople who have implemented it.

At the same time, it will never have the moral force it must have unless the penalties it envisions for those who abuse children are also applied to bishops who fail to respond. I will trust that the bishops are serious about child sex abuse the day they begin to hold each other accountable. But as long as so many who have failed in this matter continue to hold office, I will be placing my trust in Christ alone. 

This article appeared in the August 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 8, page 8).

Image: Tom Wright