Bishop's conviction could compound legal problems for Kansas City diocese

The legal arena has become a sort of second home to the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese — but hardly a sanctuary. Bishop Robert Finn’s criminal misdemeanor conviction this past summer for failing to report suspected child abuse involving the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, analysts say, could dramatically undercut the diocese’s defense against mounting civil lawsuits.

More than two dozen pending cases allege offenses ranging from sexual abuse by priests to wrongful death.

The Ratigan case triggered a new wave of litigation.

“Now that Bishop Finn has (been convicted), the diocese is at absolute risk,” said Patrick Wall, a canon lawyer and former Roman Catholic priest who has worked on behalf of clergy sexual abuse victims for a decade.

This is only the latest surge of lawsuits charging that church leaders covered up sexual abuse by priests in the diocese. This bunch follows past assurances of reform. Consequently, some analysts see ballooning liability and potentially crippling judgments.

In 2008, the diocese paid a $10 million settlement to 47 victims and their families who filed lawsuits involving 12 current or former priests.

That settlement pointedly included a pledge to follow mandatory state reporting requirements and diocesan guidelines to report suspected sexual abuse of minors to law enforcement.

Finn’s recent guilty verdict, experts say, could be offered as evidence that the diocese didn’t live up to its promise. That conviction, they say, could hamper the diocese even more.

“If you’ve been convicted of something very closely related to what the allegations are in the lawsuits, then it’s certainly possible that it could be used as leverage by the plaintiffs in aiming toward a settlement,” said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia.

Last October, after the bishop was indicted for failing to report Ratigan, most of the plaintiffs in the 2008 settlement filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against the diocese. They alleged that the diocese and Finn failed to live up to some of the settlement’s critical terms. They asked a jud...

 

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