US Catholic Faith in Real Life

The paradoxes of Bishop Finn

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Rejoicing over the recent resignation of Bishop Robert Finn as the bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph is unseemly. I take no joy in another person’s distress, and I wonder what the church will do with a bishop who is only 62 years old and has 13 years of active episcopal ministry left. What does the church do with a bishop without a diocese? 

Bernard Law, when he first stepped down from the See of Boston, was supposed to live a quiet life of prayer as chaplain for the Alma Mercy Sisters, but we all know how that worked out. A similar call to Finn for a cushy Roman job is out of the question. There is a different pope now.

This is but one of the paradoxes in Finn’s case. Another is: Why did he choose to ignore the Dallas Charter, the compact that he had with his fellow bishops, not to allow sexually abusive priests to remain in ministry? That was a promise that the entire body of American bishops made to the faithful in the United States. How could Finn think that he knew better than his fellow bishops? Did he ever consider the effects of his breach on the rest of the American church, namely the persistence of the doubt that if one bishop was breaking the Charter, others probably were as well, but were just better at not getting caught?

And another paradox: Why did his fellow bishops not call him out publicly for his dishonor? After all, it was their joint promise that he broke. Where was the fraternal correction from the American bishops?In Germany, when the Bishop of Bling, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of the diocese of Limburg, spent $43 million dollars to renovate his palace, the outcry from the German bishops was public and immediate. Within four months, Tebartz-van Elst was gone.

In contrast, there was no public outcry by the American bishops when Finn was found to have harbored a sexually abusive priest. If there had been, the period between when Finn pleaded guilty to child endangerment and when he actually stepped down would certainly have been shorter than two years and seven months. It is no accident that, within a few months of Cardinal Sean O’Malley saying that Finn’s case had to be “urgently” addressed in his 60 Minutes interview, Finn was gone. And it is unfortunate that no other American bishop spoke up publicly sooner, or Finn might have been gone sooner. Why do our bishops lack the moral fortitude of the German bishops when it comes to criticizing one of their own?

And speaking of our bishops and their collective treatment of Bishop Finn, this recalls yet another paradox. In the news over Finn’s resignation after his conviction for failing to report suspected child abuse in Jackson County, Missouri, it has been forgotten that, in order to avoid prosecution on similar charges in Clay County, Missouri, Finn handed significant power over his diocese to the public prosecutor there. Pursuant to that agreement, Finn had to meet with the Clay County prosecutor once a month for five years to personally report to any charges of child sexual abuse involving diocesan clergy or staff. He also had to report what the diocese was doing to deal with these charges. In addition, Finn, together with the diocesan ombudsman and director of child protection, had to make presentations on child abuse to each of the nine parishes in Clay County.

At the same time Finn was avoiding prosecution in Clay County through this agreement, giving the public prosecutor unprecedented power over an American diocese, the rest of our bishops were gearing up their campaign to defend religious liberty, which they said was under attack in our country. Every diocese was to hold a “Fortnight for Freedom” prior to July 4, for Catholics “to study, pray and take public action to fight what they see as the government’s attempts to curtail religious freedom.”

Does anyone see an obvious contradiction here? Not one bishop mentioned, in their discussion of the assaults on religious freedom, the fact that one of their own had committed one of the greatest assaults on religious freedom in order to avoid his own criminal prosecution.

Right now, in Finn’s case, there are still more questions than answers. One thing is certain, however: We can never allow this situation to repeat itself. The safety of our children in the hands of our church can never again be placed in doubt. And no diocesan bishop who ignores this should remain in office for an extra minute.

Published: 
Friday, April 24, 2015