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 worry...be 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.