SNAP, Media Target Psychiatrist Who Evaluated Troubled Kansas City Priest

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Star and the Survivors’ Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) have targeted a psychiatrist who evaluated a priest now facing criminal charges in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo.

In the latest phase of the high-profile Kansas City, Mo., scandal, where Father Shawn Ratigan has been charged with three counts of possession of child pornography, and Bishop Robert Finn has been charged with one misdemeanor count of failing to report a suspicion of abuse, the psychiatrist who met with the priest has been attacked for “bias” and for misdiagnosing his condition.

Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, a Pennsylvania-based psychiatrist who has evaluated many Catholic priests, including some accused of abusing children, is listed as an “advisor” on the website of Opus Bono Sacerdotii. The lay-run organization, whose Latin name means “Work for the Good of the Priesthood,” assists priests who face criminal and canonical charges and others with financial, legal or medical needs.

SNAP asserts that Fitzgibbons’ affiliation with the organization underscores the psychiatrist’s “bias” in favor of accused priests rather than victims.

“Fitzgibbons’ close affiliation with a controversial advocacy organization for child-molesting clerics makes it hard, if not impossible, for him to be objective in evaluating an accused sex-offender priest,” said Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, SNAP’s outreach director, in a press release. A call placed to SNAP’s director, David Clohessy, was not returned.

SNAP’s campaign followed a Nov. 16 Kansas City Star story that focused on Fitzgibbons’ role.

The news story stated that Bishop “Finn relied on Fitzgibbons’ opinion in his decision to send Ratigan to a Vincentian mission house in Independence, where he remained a priest and allegedly continued to take lewd photographs of children …”

In a Nov. 22 press release, SNAP reported that “Clergy sex-abuse victims have filed a formal complaint against a Philadelphia area psychologist [sic] chosen by Kansas City’s Catholic bishop to evaluate a priest accused of possessing and producing child pornography.”

Accusations Dismissed

In fact, at the time of the evaluation last winter, troubling photographs had been found on the priest’s laptop, but no accusations or criminal charges had been filed against him. It is not clear whether Fitzgibbons was sent the most disturbing images. After the priest’s subsequent arrest last May, additional photos were discovered; allegedly, they included images deemed to be pornographic.

Peter Ferrara, a spokesman for Opus Bono Sacerdotii, dismissed the accusation that Fitzgibbons had a special relationship with the organization and would thus intentionally distort the results of his evaluation or ignore the need for protecting vulnerable minors.

“He’s a psychiatrist who is an adviser. And if a priest needs a psychiatrist, he might be one of a number of people or programs they could call,” said Ferrara, who observed that Fitzgibbons is also an adviser to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Clergy and several U.S. dioceses.

Ferrara disputed the public characterization of Opus Bono Sacerdottii as an advocacy group. The Kansas City Star article quoted Clancy Martin, philosophy department chairman at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, who suggested that given Fitzgibbons’ involvement in “the advocacy side of things, it seems like he ought to pull himself out on even just the perception of a conflict of interest.”

Ferrara contends that his organization is primarily focused on serving the needs of priests in trouble.

“The beatitudes are the best way to describe what this organization is for priests. We help priests when they find themselves in difficulty; they could be in prison; they could be sick. We assist them with any needs they have that the Church cannot fulfill, as the Second Vatican Council asks the laity to do,” he said.

The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has protested the attacks on Opus Bono Sacerdottii and Fitzgibbons, organizing a press conference to challenge the accusations. In an interview, the league’s president, William Donohue, stated that the psychiatrist should be “commended, not condemned, for his association with OBS.”

According to an independent investigation commissioned by Bishop Finn in the wake of Father Ratigan’s arrest last May, Father Ratigan was sent to be evaluated by Fitzgibbons. The report suggests — though the language is somewhat unclear — that Fitzgibbons diagnosed Father Ratigan as “lonely” and “depressed,” but not as a pedophile.

While the national media has dissected the contents of the independent review in detail — including Fitzgibbons’ apparent diagnosis — the psychiatrist could not violate patient confidentiality and discuss his evaluation of Father Ratigan.


But in an interview, Fitzgibbons disputed the assertion that his affiliation with Opus Bono Sacerdotii would sway his professional judgment while conducting an evaluation of any patient. He said he had met with a host of priests, some of whom were guilty of the allegations against them, and others who had been unfairly accused.

The focus of the evaluation, he said, is to determine whether an individual “may or may not pose a danger to themselves or to others.” He said he “gets a call from Opus Bono Sacerdotii once every several years, when a priest is accused and needs an evaluation.”

During his years as a licensed psychiatrist, said Fitzgibbons, “I’ve written about unjust accusations against priests, but I’ve had no trouble telling a diocese to remove a priest if I think he’s a threat to others.”

Earlier this year, in the wake of the explosive grand jury report in Philadelphia that led to multiple indictments and the removal of 26 priests from ministry, Fitzgibbons publicly challenged the decision by the Philadelphia Archdiocese to pull priests who had already been cleared of abuse allegations. In a published interview with the Register last April, Fitzgibbons noted that perceived “boundary violations” had wrongly prompted the removal of some priests.

But that public role is just one part of Fitzgibbons’ professional life, which includes affiliations with a range of Church institutions. He stresses that during an individual evaluation he focuses on objective criteria. 

When asked to evaluate a troubled priest or someone already accused of “allegedly inappropriate sexual behavior, you … look at their background and the psychological conflicts that could predispose them to making mistakes,” he said. 

In such cases, he employs the Clarke Sex History Questionnaire: “a standardized computer-scored questionnaire to determine if the subject has sexual conflicts,” which can result in criminal behavior. But he acknowledged that no evaluation is fool-proof; patients can lie or otherwise misrepresent their true psychological state.

“The testing we use and the history obtained provide an objective evaluation within a ‘reasonable degree of medical certainty,’” said Fitzgibbons, who stood by his belief that acute loneliness and narcissism, reinforced by a history of sexual conflict, pulled many priests into opportunistic criminal behavior.

Demands a Review

SNAP challenges that assessment. It has contacted the Harrisburg, Pa.-based State Board of Medicine and the Pennsylvania Psychiatric Society to demand a review and possibly a penalty imposed on Fitzgibbons.

But while Fitzgibbons is now being blamed for producing a questionable evaluation that reportedly led Bishop Finn to place Father Ratigan in a location where he had access to children, it remains unclear what role the evaluation actually played in the decision about the priest’s future.

In the early days of the clergy abuse crisis, Catholic bishops argued that psychologists had wrongly advised dioceses to return accused priests to active ministry. Since 2002, mental-health experts have confirmed that most adults who prey on minors cannot be “treated” and will continue their pattern of behavior.

The U.S. bishops have thus endured a decade of painful lessons about best practices for dealing with this issue, and they exercise their own judgment.

In a previous interview with the Register that addressed the “lessons learned”’ on the abuse crisis, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., said that the psychological evaluation is just one piece of the decision-making process.

“[E]xpert testimony and analysis may be helpful in trying to care for the individual priest, but it certainly is not helpful in deciding whether a priest is suitable for active ministry.

“For one thing, the therapist is nowhere around when the heat is on. There is a natural bias within the therapeutic community: The goal is to get people well and restore them. Some therapists may take an overly optimistic view of what is possible.”

Jesuit Father Gerald McGlone, of the St. John Vianney Center, a faith-centered behavioral health-treatment program, could not comment on the Kansas City case or on Fitzgibbons’ diagnosis, but he agreed with Archbishop Naumann’s realistic position.

A clinician with 20 years’ experience treating priests, Father McGlone applauds the breakthroughs in research that have sharpened the profile of potential predators and also helped the Church construct “safe environment” programs.

The John Jay Report, commissioned by the U.S. bishops’ conference in the wake of the 2002 abuse crisis and conducted by an independent organization, determined that a high percentage of abuse committed by diocesan priests took place in the rectory; with religious, it was more likely to occur in the victim’s home. Safe-environment training has limited those opportunities.

“I used to think these were individual personality flaws [that created sexual predators], and I soon learned that the majority of the cases were situationally based offenses,” Father McGlone said. “That means there wasn’t a predilection in the individual. Rather, there were circumstances in the person’s life that contributed to the likelihood that he would abuse someone.

“We know that sexual offenders are attracted to more vulnerable individuals, and that determines the opportunity for the abuse. Prevention efforts are about not allowing the opportunity for abuse.”

Father McGlone agrees that, with many pastors living alone in rectories, more diocesan priests will experience loneliness. But now they are better equipped to deal with the spiritual and moral dangers posed by a sense of isolation.

During conferences with priests, he emphasizes the importance of choosing how to respond to the “solitude: Will it be grace filled or gloomy isolation? You need to identify how you respond to that loneliness.

“One response gives life and is spiritually based,” he concluded, “and the other leads to betrayal.”

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Showing 2 comments

  • Kim Robinson
    commented 2011-12-04 16:13:25 -0600
    sandusky sure wasnt lonley he had people around him all the time and he still abused
  • JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND, National Catholic Register
    published this page in News Story of the Day 2011-12-02 08:22:00 -0600

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