The Kansas City fumble

The Anchoress has a primer on what appears to be a mishandled case of a priest found to have an unseemly interest in children, although it doesn’t seem to have gotten so far as direct physical abuse. You can get the full story via that link and the stories to which Elizabeth links, but the salient facts for my purposes are these: In May 2010, the principal of a Catholic school sent a memo to her diocese outlining concerns about the pastor, Fr. Ratigan. It’s not clear whether the ordinary, Bp. Finn, ever saw the original report, but he did see a summary, the contents and author of which are unclear. Nor is it clear what exactly Finn did about it; the characterization offered is that he “sat on” the report, but who knows what that means? At any rate, it wasn’t until more evidence washed up unbidden on the chancery’s door in December that the cops were called and Ratigan was (in effect; there’s more to it than this) removed.

Much of the timeline is opaque, so it’s important to exercise some restraint in judging Finn’s response. Nevertheless, it’s hard to avoid at least a tentative judgment on the facts presented. It’s beside the point that Ratigan was ultimately found to be doing something wrong; the fundamental problem is the lethargic (indeed, seemingly comatose) response.After all that has happened, how can any chancery in the country have failed to designate an office(r) to investigate claims of impropriety by priests toward children? I find it hard to believe that as many as one bishop in the United States could still be asleep at the switch on anything even close to abuse by 2010. The episcopate cannot be unaware of how much damage has been done by the abuse scandal (both eo ipso and as a result of its weaponization by enemies of the Church), so one might think that even an allegation of impropriety would rocket to the top of a bishop’s docket and stay there long enough to get a sense of what is actually happening.

I understand that everything takes time. I understand that bishops have much to do and little time in which to do it. I also understand that sometimes there is smoke without fire: Allegations turn out to be false, suspicions turn out to be groundless. What I don’t understand is the lack of any sense of urgency. I don’t expect bishops to personally undertake the investigation any more than I expect Presidents to personally lead Seal Team Six into battle or join the cast of CSI:Feds; Cadfael was the sleuth, not Prior Robert, who had better things to do. But I do expect them to have well-oiled processes in their chanceries for expeditiously investigating claims and determining whether they are false, groundless, and so on. Rambling, ramshackle, and ad hoc processes run by remote control from the chancery won’t suffice any more. I don’t expect the system to be perfect; I don’t expect it to be airtight, with no cases falling through the cracks; but I do expect there to be a system. There should be an office in every diocese designated to investigate and manage complaints of abuse, and the officer in charge should meet with the bishop regularly to give an overview. I think that it’s perfectly feasible that every complaint should have had at least a tentative evaluation within a month—interviews with the involved parties and a recommendation for further investigation or not. 1

And who knows—perhaps it happened just like that in Kansas City. Bp. Finn was handed at least a summary indicating that there could be a problem; I would like to know what happened next, beyond the bland abstraction that he “sat on it.” (That sounds a lot like media-speak for “if we ask questions the answers might destroy our narrative.”) But we can ground a tentative judgment on two key data that we do know: We know that the diocese was notified in May 2010, and we know that it had taken no action by December 2010. Whatever happened between those dates was, clearly, insufficient. If the chancery had done nothing by December, the situation was not being actively handled with the level of concern, attention, and dispatch that one would have expected ten years of this scandal to have beaten into the bishops.


  1. The Federal Speedy Trial Act, 18 U.S.C. §§ 3161 et seq., supplies an instructive comparison. Broadly, the act requires that a trial begin within seventy days of an indictment, which must in turn be filed within thirty days of the arrest. See, e.g., Zedner v. United States, 547 U.S. 489 (2006). It seems reasonable to treat section 3161’s understanding of “speedy” as a benchmark for “expeditious.” Given today’s technology, thirty days is long enough to make a tentative assessment; three months and some change is long enough to reach a conclusion. Any reasonable process should have suspended or cleared Ratigan by the end of August. And think about the consequences of delay! An innocent priest has a cloud hanging over him, and a guilty one is left in a position to do more harm.

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