Friday, May 27, 2011

It's time to pop the chancery bubble

Astonishing account of how Bishop Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph never saw, never even read the letter warning of accused priest Fr. Shawn Ratigan's inappropriate behavior with children until after the priest's arrest (hat tip: Deacon Kandra):

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Bishop Robert W. Finn said today he had not seen a year-old letter from a Catholic elementary school principal warning of the aberrant behavior of a local priest who was arrested May 19 for possessing child pornography.

Finn said he only saw the letter from principal Julie Hess yesterday.

Hess delivered the letter to the diocesan vicar general in May 2010 -- exactly one year before the arrest of Fr. Shawn Ratigan and seven months before the diocese removed him from his parish.

At a press conference called for 3 p.m. today, Finn said he was given a “brief verbal summary” of the letter by Murphy a year ago, that he had read it in its entirety for the “first time” last night (May 26), and that, “to the best of his knowledge,” no one other than the vicar general had read the letter before yesterday.

Finn said: “Hindsight makes it clear that I should have requested from Msgr. Murphy an actual copy of the report.” Read yesterday's NCR story: Diocese was warned of priest's aberrant behavior one year before arrest

Hess is principal of St. Patrick School in Kansas City, Mo. The school is attached to the parish that Ratigan served as pastor. [Link in original--E.M.]

Do I believe that Bishop Finn received only a verbal report of the problem which downplayed the accused priest's behavior so much that the bishop did not realize that this was not a minor problem? Yes, I do. I've written to and contacted chanceries before, and it's almost impossible to pop the bubble of gate-keeping and protection that surrounds the average Catholic bishop, unless you are a family member or a close friend, or something.

When the chancery bubble existed to keep the bishop from having to answer questions about his policies of liturgical wreckovation, his encouragement of dissident priests or dissenting theologians, or his own heretical notions (as was sometimes the case), it was an annoyance. Now that we see the chancery bubble being employed to keep a bishop from understanding that one of his priests was sending up major pedophilia red flags and from acting on that information, however, the chancery bubble has gone from being annoying to being an abomination.

For far too long, too many (though not all) of our bishops in America have hidden within the confines of the chancery bubble, content to let various clergy (like the vicar general) or lay employees (such as secretaries and heads of departments) field all the calls, handle all the letters, soothe down the public, bear the brunt of negative opinion and shield the bishop himself from those who expressed them, whether malcontents, axe-grinders, troublemakers, or those with legitimate complaints. Even today few bishops will make an email address available--or read the emails sent to them, if they do have such a newfangled thing.

Sure, we don't want bishops to spend all of their time handling the negative opinions of their flocks. But by hiding in the bubble, the bishops have become vulnerable to those chancery officials who deal with negativity by pretending the problems aren't real. When the matters were merely liturgical or political, that was frustrating, but not harmful. When the matters involve faithless priests preying on children, though, we've crossed a line into grossly irresponsible behavior.

It's time to pop the chancery bubble. It's time for bishops to make themselves available to the people, not to keep getting all of their information filtered through those whose "Don't happy..." approach is downright negligent. Hopefully Bishop Finn's experience here will serve as a reminder to our shepherds that they're not supposed to be letting a ring of wolves around them tell them why the sheep are restless, disturbed, drifting, and losing faith and trust in them--or, worse, pretend that none of that is even happening.


Siarlys Jenkins said...

At face value, this sounds like Erin is ready to join Voice of the Faithful. Although I say that tongue in cheek, the point is, if the princes of the church are called upon to be open and accountable to the laity... well then the church becomes something more like a constitutional monarchy than an absolute authority.

But never mind. This reminds me of a totally different bubble. One afternoon, there was a breakdown on the blue and orange line tracks in the DC Metro system. Everyone had to exit at L'Enfant Plaza. They all got on the bus lines which stopped there, to continue on their way home. Buses were packed to the gills and didn't even stop at the regular bus stops further down the road. Large crowds gathered at those stops.

I made a call to the line for reporting problems. A young man spoke SOOTHINGLY. (What reminded me of this? Erin's insightful reference to the intermediaries working to "soothe down the public." The man told me over and over "It's all being taken care of sir."

Finally, I realized, he was NOT trained to relay useable information to people responsible to ACT on it (e.g,, putting more buses on the street). No, he was trained to soothe and reassure, no matter whether things were taken care of or not.


Red Cardigan said...

Oh, come now, Siarlys. I just think that cats can look at kings (and be heard by them), not that cats should take over as rulers. Sure, they'd be benevolent tyrants--but they'd be tyrants. As are laity when they are in charge of churches, I find. :)

Liz said...

I think what Erin is trying to say is that some of those layers beneath the bishop are not allowing the bishop access to information that he needs to have. Frequently, it's laity or vowed religious rather than other priests. They have their own ideas about how things should be run, and those ideas are not always in concert with Catholic teaching. There is a conflict here. Bishops don't have the time to listen to every minor complaint or every odd duck who wants to call with an opinion. However, there are frequently policy matters that do touch on Catholic teaching that are difficult to every dialog with the bishop about because he's being protected by secretaries, HR people, the vicar general, the members of the finance committee etc. Fortunately, our bishop does get out and about enough that the average person might get the chance to bend his ear for a couple of minutes at a post Mass coffee hour.

Any Catholic official who keeps information about possible child molesters from his bishop should summarily lose his position in the chancery office at the very least. But I guess here was an example of the sort of e-mail that a bishop ought not to get a summary of, shouldn't a school principal at the very least be worthy of direct attention from the bishop?

And I say this as someone who has no sympathy at all with Voice of the Faithful. I also say this as someone who thinks that unlike some dioceses we have a pretty fantastic bishop.

Anonymous said...

Well, the principal has some fault here too. Did she follow up? Did she get a reply? She also could have reported to the local authorities.

RJS said...

Bishops are incredibly busy and MUST surround themselves with competent people to handle these things. It's physically impossible to do it all. He can only react to what he is told. He trusted Msgr Murphy to present an accurate summary. This may not have happened. The lack of action would indicate that as I know Bishop Finn to be very concerned about such things. And yes, where was the follow-up from the principal if she was that concerned? As a CEO, I sometimes miss things and rely on my people to stay on me about them. He is now fixing the mistake as best he can and changing policies to try to ensure it does not happen again.

Meanwhile, no one is doing likewise in our public schools where the instances of abuse are much higher. And the media is silent.

Red Cardigan said...

News articles on this make it appear that the sequence was as follows:

1. The vicar general (and, possibly, others) asked a Catholic in law enforcement (quite unofficially and off the record) whether having pictures of children on his computer that were not pornography meant they should move against this priest. They were aware of at least one image of a nude child. To me, this was huge red flag #1: if a parent has such a picture (say, of bath time or a child's antics as he/she gets ready for bed) that's one thing, but for a priest to have such a picture?

2. The law enforcement person appears to have given bad advice (e.g., no real case here). However, there is confusion as to whether the law enforcement person was told of the nude image.

3. The vicar general presented the bishop with a very condensed version of the principal's concerns and of the law enforcement person's unofficial opinion. Even that condensed version was enough to have the bishop tell Fr. Ratigan he was not to have contact with children, and to assign him elsewhere for at least a temporary arrangement.

4. Fr. Ratigan, no longer officially at the parish/school, continued to have contact with children. Some months later he was arrested and charged with possession of child pornography (and there have been some additional disturbing details which I won't get in to here).

So: why is any of this the principal's fault? She was told the bishop had been informed; then Fr. Ratigan was reassigned. Was it her job to follow up?

No. That job belonged to Bishop Finn. Our bishops need a "The buck stops here," mindset when dealing with cases of the possibility of abuse with children.

Now, I know people will complain about railroading innocent priests or safeguarding their rights. I'm certainly of the opinion that priests deserve the presumption of innocence. But when a priest's computer is full of pictures of children he's not related to, and at least one nude picture, we can't hide behind "innocent until proven guilty" mantras. Children's innocence is being violated, and even if there's no actual crime such a priest needs to be evaluated, watched, and kept away from children. No priest has the luxury in the post-scandal era of saying he just likes to take photos of little kids, and what could possibly be wrong with that?

Red Cardigan said...

One more thing: I do agree that the one thing the principal should have considered doing was going straight to the police, and bypassing the chancery altogether. In fact, that is the advice I would give each and every person reading this blog: if you suspect that a priest or any other person (schoolteacher, coach, etc.) is taking inappropriate pictures, behaving inappropriately around children, etc.: go straight to the cops. Do not ask a Catholic off-duty law enforcement person what to do as was done here: go to the police station and make a report. It is possible that the police will drop the ball and fail to follow through, but, alas, it is almost a certainty that the institution in question will if you only go to them.

So: step one: go to the police with as much information and detail as you have. Step two: inform the diocese (or school, etc.). Be prepared to be vilified as a traitor for not letting things be handled "quietly," but take comfort in the fact that handling things "quietly" has destroyed the lives of too many children, and press on in courage.

Melanie B said...

Erin, My husband works in our Chancery so I have sort of an insider's view. I agree with Liz and RJS about the impossibility of a bishop reading all the email addressed to him, much less that plus all the other correspondence. The Chancery Bubble, as lamentable as it is, exits not for nefarious purposes but simply because there is no way one man-- or even one man with a couple of secretaries-- can handle all the volume of information that is flowing through the Chancery of even a small diocese. My husband used to be in charge of processing all donations sent to the Catholic Appeal. Touching how many people send in note with their checks addressed to the Cardinal. As if he opens all the mail received at the Chancery himself and enters each check into the register of his personal checkbook. Sorry, but your complaint about the bubble seems a bit like those naive notes.

I do agree that bishops seem to have a huge blind spot when it comes to the character and competence of the men with whom they surround themselves. There is also a lamentable tendency in the Church to be almost paralyzed by the fear of firing even the most incompetent employees because of a false charity. But I think the root problem is not that bishops delegate too much rather that we expect bishops to do too many things that really should be done by others. A bishop should be the spiritual head of the diocese but too often they act as administrator-in-chief. What is the solution to the bubble problem? Breaking up bigger dioceses into smaller dioceses where everyone can conceivably have a personal contact with his shepherd? Perhaps ideally; but I think not likely given the shortage of priests.

My husband observes that Pope Benedict seems to be appointing a very different sort of man as bishop. Often they are younger, have experience in a seminary as rector or such. He seems to be hoping that using different tactics in choosing bishops may eventually solve some of these problems.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure the principal should not have gone to the police. Some if those strongly suggest crimes against
Children (touching w lustful intention, etc). Our policies are
to report too. So, depending on their state laws she should have reported it to police too. I think it is that way in Texas too- reporting mandatory.
Still, someone at the diocese was not doing a good job.

Red Cardigan said...

Melanie, I get that bishops need help. My problem is that they've surrendered too much authority to the bubble. No vicar general should have the authority on his own to decide that the bishop doesn't need to know the details of serious allegations against a priest. That this can still happen in 2011 is beyond irresponsible.

Melanie B said...

Oh you won't get any disagreement from me about surrendering too much authority-- don't get me started on my critique of Chancery culture, it's probably not good for me to rage about it as much as I do. I think that's precisely the problem. Bishops need to delegate because of logistics; but I think they're often too comfortable delegating too much. But I did think your suggestion that a bishop read all his own email was pushing it too far. I don't think that's a feasible solution to the problem.

Also, what seems to me equally problematic is that too many chancery employees are far too comfortable speaking in their bishop's name without really having that authority, trusting in the bureaucratic tangle and the bishop's passivity to keep them out of trouble.

Anonymous said...

It's blindlingly obvious that Murphy was protecting Ratigan.

And Melanie's right. A bishop cannot personally deal with every issue. He just have trustworthy people to whom matters are delegated. Even priest personnel issues to a certain level. That's the VG's job. In this case it seems clear to me that the VG was trying to protect Ratigan.

John E. said...

"Ah! If only the Czar knew what the cossacks were doing! The Little Father would protect us!"

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Erin, I was thinking of your answer about cats and kings, before I read John E.'s salient analogy. It seems to me, that what you are calling for is far more than taking a look, or getting a hearing. While the king IS the king, you are calling for kings to be ACCOUNTABLE to the cats they rule. Yes, the kings, or the princes of the church, are entitled to rule (at least within the framework that governs your church), but you want ACCOUNTABILITY to the cats.

There are worse ways to govern. Mobs can be tyrants, so can monarchs.

Anonymous said...

Hey that is kinda neat. I was taught that in medieval times that the commoners tended to side with the king and seek refuge in his cities as a protection from the extortion that the noble class would subject them to. So these chanceries filled with elite lay cabals keeping the bishop in the fog fits the analogy nicely. And it points nicely to Matthew Hoffman's analysis of John you-knuckle-dragging-Taliban-Catholics-need-to-be-more-charitable Allen and his ilk:

The defeat of NCR’s phony, neo-modernist “peace and justice Catholicism” is in large part the product of lay movements exercising the very functions that liberal dissenters hoped to expropriate for their own ends following Vatican II, a council for which the latter professes a profound reverence. Although the legitimacy of lay movements to protect orthodoxy has always been recognized in the Church, the concept was engraved in stone in the new Code of Canon Law, which explicitly recognizes the right and even the obligation of Catholics to inform their prelates, and one another, of their concerns regarding the faith.

To the dismay of NCR and the movement it represents, this new emphasis on lay involvement in the Church did not spawn a proletarian army to carry out their “peace and justice” revolution. It produced instead the “evangelical Catholicism” that so troubles Allen and his publisher. In recent years, “evangelical Catholicism” has made increasing use of the Internet as well as television, augmenting its influence dramatically. The Church’s establishment, so accustomed to controlling the Catholic means of communication, is finding that modern communication is a two-way street.

Unfortunately, a bishop appealing to a chancery keeping him in the dark isn't very reassuring, and while it may explain the failure, it doesn't exonerate in my humble opinion. Not to say that anyone is claiming it does.

Anonymous said...

Isn't KS a mandatory reporter state for child abuse? The school principal erred greatly in not going to the cops in an above-board way. Meanwhile, the Chancery Fog ("bubble" is too solid an object to properly serve as a metaphor to describe much of the spiritual vacuity that inhabits chanceries) strikes again and the clerical good-ole boy network almost got away with one.

Do not go to the Church when faced with clerical misconduct with youth. Go to the cops. Bishops are far more diligent about these matters when they are under oath at a deposition.


Anonymous said...

Do not go to the Church when faced with clerical misconduct with youth. Go to the cops. Bishops are far more diligent about these matters when they are under oath at a deposition.


Red Cardigan said...

FrMichael, respectfully, the school principal did not have the nude image. She had a memo of concerns which she sent to the bishop (and which he didn't see until recently). The concerns were "red flags" according to the various Keeping Children Safe" programs the Church runs. They were not things for which Fr. Ratigan could be charged with crimes. Whether the police could legally have done anything based on that memo is unclear.

The nude image, and other disturbing images of children (including, I believe, the upskirt photos, though I may be wrong about that) were discovered by a tech worker repairing Fr. Ratigan's computer. I don't think tech workers are mandatory reporters, but he did try to get the parish and/or diocese involved at that point, from the news articles I've read. It was at this point (last December) that an off-duty Catholic law enforcement professional was contacted. The nude image was described to him (he didn't see it). He gave it as his opinion that there was no case for criminal prosecution based on a verbal description of one image (it's unclear whether he even knew there were other pictures).

Bishop Finn did attempt to remove Fr. Ratigan from contact with children at that point. But as we've learned, Fr. Ratigan continued to have contact with children up to his arrest for possession of child pornography.

John E said...

Child Pornography Reporting Requirements (ISPs and IT Workers)

As of September 2010

IT Workers Required to Report Child Pornography

At least seven states--Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and South Dakota--have enacted laws requiring computer technicians or Internet service providers to report child pornography if they encounter it in the scope of their work.

I would have reported it since I'd rather not be known as "That guy who didn't call the cops about the kiddie porn".

Cheers, Siarlys - I do not understand why people don't demand accountability from the folks to whom they are sending their money and children.

MaryMargaret said...

So now we have to ask why the computer tech did not report the images to the police, if Missouri has a law requiring it. (For anyone who is unaware, Bishop Finn's diocese is in Missouri, not Kansas)

It is incomprehensible to me that Bishop Finn was not fully informed of Fr Ratigan's suspicious behavior. Have we learned nothing from the past decade?

Anonymous said...

Bishop Finn wasn't being kept in the dark, he knew all the details, including the rumors that began when Ratigan was in St. Joe.
In December, Finn arrived at the hospital at the same time the ambulance with Shawn Ratigan arrived. Doesn't sound like someone who was being kept in the dark at all. Sounds more like he was on red alert. Too bad it was red alert to cover it all up!