Tuesday, April 21, 2015

After KC Abuse Storm, Bishop Finn Falls

Almost three years since his conviction for failing to report a priest's trove of child pornography to civil authorities sparked wide calls for his removal from office, at Roman Noon the Pope accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn from the helm of Northwest Missouri's diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph.

Weeks after the embattled prelate's 62nd birthday, the move comes eight months after an apostolic visitation was ordered by Rome to gauge the tensions in the diocese, which Finn had led since 2005. Intriguingly, the KC vacancy has occurred as Pope Francis faces fresh calls to act against another prelate mired in controversy over charges of negligence amid his ties to an abuse case: the Chilean Bishop Juan Barros, whose recent arrival in a new see has been dogged by astonishing levels of public protest, all while Barros has been made to travel with riot police and guard dogs.

Back to Finn, the outcry for the bishop's departure dates to the fallout of the 2012 bench trial that saw him found guilty of negligence in the case of Fr Shawn Ratigan, a local cleric whose explicit photos of young girls in various states of undress were reported to the diocese on their discovery by a technician, but not forwarded to police for several months. While the priest was subsequently charged with several federal counts of producing child pornography and sentenced to 50 years in jail, a local grand jury indicted Finn and the diocese on a single misdemeanor count of failing to report, becoming the first bishop in the English-speaking world to face criminal accountability for his handling of an abuse case.

Upon being found guilty at a one-day trial in September 2012, the bishop declined to appeal and was sentenced to two years of probation. As Finn's critics would routinely cite, were the prelate a layperson, the verdict would've rendered him unable to "teach Sunday school" given the post-2002 background checks the US church implemented for priests and lay staff and volunteers.

Beyond the civil penalties for the crime of possessing and creating indecent images of minors, it bears noting that, in the global church, possession of child porn by a cleric now falls under the canonical crimes of sex-abuse and, on discovery, must be reported by a bishop to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The calls for his ouster quietly seconded by many (if not most) of his confreres, though the broader scrutiny of the KC church dates to the Ratigan case, Finn's tenure had been controversial on the local scene practically from its very outset. The editor of St Louis' archdiocesan newspaper at the time of his 2004 appointment as coadjutor to Bishop Raymond Boland, the choice of the shy, privately gentle cleric with ties to Opus Dei and a general reputation for conservatism served to roil the long-progressive Northwest diocese, with many seeing the pick as a Roman rebuke of the independent, locally-run National Catholic Reporter, the de facto publication of record for the US church's liberal flank.

Shortly after succeeding Boland as diocesan bishop, Finn accordingly set out to reboot the diocesan culture, dismantling the widely-imitated local adult formation program founded after Vatican II and removing the widely-circulated column of Fr Richard McBrien from Kansas City's Catholic Key, both moves that garnered praise from traditionalists and fury among progressives. Along the way, the bishop scored a notable spike in the number of men in priestly formation, with the diocese set to ordain no less than nine new priests this year.

With his resignation, Finn becomes the third Stateside prelate to resign under a cloud of controversy over his diocese's handling of abuse claims, following Cardinal Bernard Law's historic fall amid Boston's 2002 eruption, which jump-started the greatest crisis US Catholicism has ever known, and the expedited departure of Finn's own St Louis mentor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, from the helm of the archdiocese of Philadelphia after a second local grand jury in 2011 alleged that some three dozen clerics remained in ministry despite allegations of various types of misconduct with minors, leading to the complete cultural collapse of the last great bastion of American Romanism.

In a two-sentence statement released by the diocese this morning, Finn said that "It has been an honor and joy for me to serve here among so many good people of faith," asking prayers "for whomever God may call to be the next bishop of Kansas City-St Joseph."

Given the turbulence in Kansas City, it is practically certain that the bishop won't remain in the area, most likely returning across Missouri to his hometown.

Upon Rome's announcement of Finn's departure, the bishop's neighboring ordinary and longtime close friend from St Louis, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, was named apostolic administrator of the diocese, entrusted with full powers in governing the Missouri church until its next bishop takes office.

In his own comments, Naumann said he was "keenly conscious of some of challenges and difficulties this diocese has suffered in recent years," but prayed that the transition ahead "will be a time of grace and healing for the diocese."

As Naumann himself let slip that his mandate would extend for "a very short season," since it is exceedingly rare for the metropolitan of another province to be called in to administer a local church beyond his own territory – and with the state of the diocese already adequately captured by the apostolic visitation undertaken last summer by Archbishop Terence Prendergast SJ of Ottawa – the appointment of Finn's successor can be anticipated on a particularly fast track, almost certainly within six months. Adding to the expected timetable is the thinnest US appointment docket in memory, on which Kansas City is only the second American diocese to currently stand vacant.

SVILUPPO: While the most-employed reaction behind the scenes to Finn's resignation boiled down to a single word – "Finally" – in the open, the polarities of the American Catholic conversation were predictably fired up at the news.

In its statement, the Midwest-based Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP) called the move "a tiny step forward" before proceeding to bash the Kansas City diocesan apparatus for failing to "speak up" in protest of their bishop, while the New York based Catholic League – which led the prelate's defense (ostensibly on behalf of Finn's allies in the hierarchy) – slammed the bishop's "foes" for "rejoicing" at his departure "because he's an orthodox bishop."

While Ratigan's ministry mostly occurred under Finn's watch – the now-jailed priest was ordained in 2004 – the conservative pressure-group oddly thanked Finn "for cleaning up the mess he inherited."