By Julie Bosman
June 30, 2014
CHICAGO — A Roman Catholic diocese in Missouri has been ordered to pay $1.1 million to victims of sexual abuse for breaking its promises on improving the way it deals with abuse cases.
An arbitrator ruled that the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is responsible for damages after concluding that, contrary to a prior agreement, it did not promptly report a priest who had taken hundreds of pornographic photographs of young girls, according to a filing in circuit court in Jackson County, Mo.
The case grew out of a $10 million settlement with abuse victims in 2008, under which the bishop, Robert Finn, promised that he would report those suspected of child abuse to law enforcement officials in the future. At the time, Bishop Finn said in a statement that he agreed to rules “that should assure our community, our congregation and our families that the diocese will continue in its exercise of vigilance and in its devotion to training and education so that we may be confident that there will never, ever be a repeat of the behaviors, the offenses or the claims that have been associated with this matter.”
But the 18-page court filing says that promise was violated in 2010 in the case of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, a diocesan priest who was discovered with hundreds of photographs of girls, including so-called upskirt images, on his laptop. Although the presence of the computer images was reported to church officials, law enforcement authorities were not notified.
In 2012, Bishop Finn was found guilty of one misdemeanor charge for failing to report Father Ratigan, who was arrested in 2011 and pleaded guilty the next year to child pornography charges. He was sentenced to 50 years in federal prison.
Lawyers said the arbitrator’s ruling could provide a template for other victims of sexual abuse across the country who have reached settlements with the Catholic Church but feel church officials have not lived up to their assurances that they would improve procedures to stem abuse.
“This is one way to at least have some form of continuing oversight,” said Rebecca Randles, a lawyer for the victims.
A lawyer for the diocese did not return a phone call seeking comment. Spencer Brown, a lawyer for Bishop Finn, declined to comment.
In the latest ruling, victims in the 2008 case charged that Bishop Finn violated the terms of the settlement agreement requiring him to report sexual misconduct first to the police.
Hollis Hanover, the arbitrator, wrote in the court filing that he believed the diocese “was and is constitutionally incapable of placing the preservation and protection of the clergy culture in a subordinate position to any other consideration, including the timely reporting of a priest involved in the use of diocesan children as pornography models.”
Mr. Hanover also determined that the diocese was guilty of breaching other provisions: one requiring it to provide counseling to victims of sexual abuse and their families, and another banning the diocese from providing a reference or recommendation to a potential employer of clergy members who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse.
Lawyers for the diocese have asked a judge to vacate the arbitrator’s decision; lawyers for the victims say they will ask the judge to approve it. The judge’s decision is open to appeal.
But a prominent victims’ group said it was pleased that the church has been ordered to pay damages. David Clohessy, the national director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, called the decision “significant.”
“It shows that even though the church hierarchy has dealt with this privately for centuries and publicly for decades, and even though all of America’s bishops pledged more than 12 years ago that they were going to reform,” Mr. Clohessy said, “this is a painful reminder that, in fact, there’s been painfully little reform.”