Sin, ink and the bishop’s indictment

The big, national religion story of the past 24 hours involves the indictment of a Roman Catholic bishop in Missouri.

The top of today’s front-page New York Times story:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A bishop in the Roman Catholic Church has been indicted for failure to report suspected child abuse, the first time in the 25-year history of the church’s sex abuse scandals that the leader of an American diocese has been held criminally liable for the behavior of a priest he supervised.

The indictment of the bishop, Robert W. Finn, and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph by a county grand jury was announced on Friday. Each was charged with one misdemeanor count involving a priest accused of taking pornographic photographs of girls as recently as this year. They pleaded not guilty.

The case caused an uproar among Catholics in Kansas City this year when Bishop Finn acknowledged that he knew of the photographs last December but did not turn them over to the police until May. During that time, the priest, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, is said to have continued to attend church events with children, and took lewd photographs of another young girl.

I am not an expert on the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals. But, to me, the NY Times coverage seems pretty straightforward (with one major hitch). In fact, the use of passive verbs up high — “has been” twice in the first paragraph and “was” twice in the second — adds to the element of simply reporting the facts. That’s opposed to active verbs that might seem (rightly or wrongly) aimed at dramatizing the story.

From a journalistic perspective, I do worry about the terminology “is said to have” as it relates to the allegations against Ratigan. “Is said to have” by whom? Who’s the actual named source making that claim?

Contrast the NY Times’ lede with that of the Los Angeles Times’ story (which did not appear on the front page):

In charging the bishop of Kansas City with failure to report child abuse, prosecutors in Missouri have done something unprecedented in the long, troubling saga of the sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church: hold a member of the church hierarchy criminally accountable for the alleged crimes of a priest.

What remains to be seen is whether the indictment of Bishop Robert Finn will be an isolated event or will encourage prosecutors elsewhere to investigate allegations of coverup against members of the church leadership.

At first glance, the LA Times approach read more like the intro to an editorial than a straightforward news story. Then again, the language is blunt and accurate. Can anyone argue that the scandal has not been long and troubling?

With these kinds of stories, I generally believe news organizations do best to strip the language to the bare essentials. Let the facts tell the story, not the reporter’s — or news organization’s — opinions.

But news stories can take simplicity too far.

In the NY Times report, a graf near the end left me wanting more information, or less information, or something:

The case has generated fury at the bishop, a staunch theological conservative who was already a polarizing figure in his diocese. Since the Ratigan case came to light, there have been widespread calls for him to resign.

What does the bishop’s theological stance have to do with the case? After all, “liberal” bishops have found themselves caught up in this scandal, as well. There’s been enough sin in this story to taint a wide spectrum of Catholic leaders.

Over at his American Conservative blog, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher points out:

Note well that Bishop Finn is a member of the conservative prelature Opus Dei. You cannot tell who is going to be a good or a bad bishop on this issue by whether or not they are faithful to the Magisterium. Depressing. Infuriating.

Also, who has called for Finn to resign? Who are his critics (since all bishops have critics)? If this left-right angle is going to be pulled into the story, the reader needs specifics. This vagueness hurts the story.

For perhaps the most in-depth coverage, the the Kansas City Star is the place to look. It’s interesting that the local newspaper does not take a shot at the bishop’s theology, while the NY Times does.

The Star reports the facts while looking to local and national sources to help put the case in perspective. Along with familiar sources on this issue (do the names Sipe and Clohessy ring a bell?), the Kansas City paper quotes local parishioners. Some even defend the bishop.

“The man may have been guilty of incompetence and negligence, but I do not see him as a criminal,” said Matthew Copple of Gladstone, whose child attends St. Patrick School, where Ratigan once served as pastor. “That seems wrong to me. Let’s punish the people who committed the deed. I don’t see the need for the bishop to have a criminal record or be guilty of a crime.”

Others disagree and that’s the point. There are a number of voices to follow here and a liberal vs. conservative news framework is just too simplistic.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Matt

    I wondered about you GRistas’ opinion of the NYT’s reference in its first paragraph to “the 25-year history of the church’s sex abuse scandals”. Does that seem accurate? What exactly happened in 1986?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    After more than a decade in criminal justice and reading all three linked articles, I’m still wondering how you charge a corporate entity with a crime, much less indict it. Civil actions I understand, but who serves a sentence if the diocese is convicted?

    Sorry, Bobby, I thought the Star article was the weakest of the three, maybe because it reached further than the others. The “national sources” were Reese, Sipe, and Clohessy, professional scolds with nothing but cliches to contribute. Would it not have been more interesting to include national voices from a part of the Church more attuned to Bp. Finn. It’s not like he’s the only Opus Dei bishop in the United States. One prominent Catholic blogger certainly has some things to say. And apparently, it’s an international story. So could the Star have done better than the usual suspects and gone with national voices who might be expected to defend Bp. Finn?

    I’ll skip the obvious statements about the disparity of coverage over a Catholic bishop as opposed to, say, an Episcopal bishop or a public school system. That will just bring accusations of not caring about children… blah, blah, blah. After locking up sex offenders for a few years, you quit hearing those voices.

    One thing I find interesting: buried in the bottom of the stories is the interesting fact that a diocesan official did report a pornographic pic to the police who opined that it wasn’t prosecutable. They weren’t aggressive enough, in my opinion, but I’ve had a very similar experience, reporting despicable behavior only to hear that it’s not a crime.

    For the record, this Catholic is pleased that criminal action has been pursued and we will see how it plays out. I particularly like this quote, not given fully in all three stories:

    “I can assure you that this has nothing — nothing — to do with the Catholic faith,” Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said in announcing the indictments. “This is about the facts of this case, and this is about protecting children.”

    I like her.

  • Passing By

    A timely – and non-Catholic – voice raises questions about the media’s favorite go-to guys.

    Matt – I found one reference to Catholic sex scandals back to 1928. That’s from this Wiki article, which has a lot of information on the subject, some of it disputed. Of course, it’s an old topic.

  • Matt

    Certainly it is an old topic, but it has also certainly ebbed and flowed in terms of broad interest and currency. I imagine the NYT had something in mind when they specified a figure of 25 years. I’m just curious what it was, and whether it was a reasonable thing to say.

  • Martha

    It sounds like the delay in reporting the photographs to the police was caused by an internal investigation before deciding that there were grounds to involve the cops, but until the full facts and timeline comes out, we won’t know.

    It’s messy whatever way it’s handled; on the one hand, you have to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who has been accused (and it remains unclear in the reporting whether the priest actually took these photos himself or downloaded child porn, so I imagine that was one element to be investigated) but on the other hand, you can’t run the risk of allowing someone accused of these crimes to have continuing contact with children.

    I see it reported (even on the tv news over here) as ‘bishop charged with covering up suspected child abuse’ but it doesn’t seem like a cover-up, more like a delay in getting the police involved. Or is that what constitutes a coverup?

  • Matt

    To me, the most troubling part of the allegation is that the bishop allowed the priest to continue having contact with minors. Allegedly he sent the priest “to live in a convent and told him to avoid contact with minors,” but did not ensure that that directive was followed.

    There can be an interesting debate on the relationship between church law and civil law, and the church’s right to handle offenses internally, but the case will be rather academic if those turn out to be the main issues. On the other hand, if the church asserted a right to handle the case internally and then did not do so responsibly, then that is a real problem.

  • Martha

    Just to show the other side of the coin; not all allegations turn out to be correct in the end and can be costly to those making them. In May of this year, our national television and radio station broadcast a current affairs investigative special entitled “A Mission to Prey” where they accused an Irish missionary priest of having raped a minor and fathered a child on her while he was working as a missionary in Kenya, then making secret payments to the mother. Before this broadcast they conducted an interview the priest (now parish priest in a West of Ireland parish) after the annual First Holy Communion Mass (nice timing, eh?) and made the allegations against him; he denied them, stood down as parish priest and offered to take a paternity test while requesting they not broadcast the programme.

    They went ahead and broadcast it anyway, the paternity test showed he was not the father of the child, and now he’s going to the High Court with a libel action against them.

    From the broadcaster’s point of view, I can see why they did it; sounds like a good, juicy scandal story. I wonder why they didn’t wait for the paternity test results, and I also wonder who brought these allegations to their attention – now that the man is back in Ireland, how did a tv station in Dublin hear about a story in Kenya?

    Still, turns out that not every accusation is automatically correct, which is why (I suspect) Bishop Finn may have been slow to involve the police and the official forces until he was sure. But we’ll see how it turns out.

  • Passing By

    Matt -

    Sorry I misunderstood. The reference to 1986 is the case of Gilbert Gauthe, a priest in Louisiana. It was, I guess, one of the first ”big news” cases. Phillip Jenkins discusses it in Pedophiles and Priests.

  • Jerry

    I have an entirely different issue. I was struck by:

    I don’t see the need for the bishop to have a criminal record or be guilty of a crime.”

    Mr. Copple said that, in effect, that the law should not be enforced because he wants, a priori, to have the accused acquitted. I would want a reporter to challenge such a statement by asking something like: “Are you really saying that you don’t care if he’s guilty, you want him to get away with breaking the law”? It’s possible he meant something else, but that statement should have been challenged.

  • Michael

    The LA Times quote that you hail as “accurate” is not at all accurate.

    prosecutors have done something unprecedented . . . hold a member of the church hierarchy criminally accountable for the alleged crimes of a priest.

    They are not holding the Bishop accountable for the alleged crimes of a priest. They are holding him accountable for failing to report the alleged crimes of a priest. More particularly, for failing to report his possession of child pornography.

  • Augusta Wynn

    I must comment on the above video of Bishop Finn. I think I am stunned, truly. This is a man who knew that Ratigan was taking obscene photos of little girls and keeping them on his computer, his own parishioners’s children. There was a letter from the principal.

    In the video above he begins by talking about “alleged” acts. And no one comments on this?

    What happened to common sense reporting?


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I couldn’t help but notice that in Ireland, when the media got it all wrong, the priest could sue and stand a chance at winning–something no wronged person can do in the U.S. once he or she is a “public person.”
    Also, a Catholic blog site noted that much has been made of the bishop’s Opus Dei connection. But the prosecutor’s strong connection to abortion activist groups has gone virtually unmentioned. (Maybe, the blog said, that is why the prosecutor called a press conference to get headlines for what is a misdemeanor and whoever heard of a press conference for a misdemeanor???)

  • Judy Jones

    Finally there is some hope and a beginning to protect children today. But “ALL” who concealed, or did not report to police, or who covered up crimes against kids need to be held accountable.

    Hopefully others, who may have knowledge or been harmed by anyone in the KC-St Joe diocese or any diocese, will have the courage to speak up and report it to police and to prosecutors, however long ago your abuse happened. Keep in mind your silence only hurts, and by speaking up there is a chance for healing, expose the truth, and therefore protecting others.

    Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, USA, 636-433-2511
    “Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests” and all clergy.

  • Julia

    I’m all for reporting, but why is the bishop being charged with not reporting promptly and the school principal is not?

    It’s my understanding that the photos brought to the attention of the policeman in December were ambiguous; but the ones uncovered in May were really bad and turned over to the prosecutor.

    I’ve gone through the child protection training recently and it is still not clear to me where the line is between seeing red flags and having reasonable suspicions. My training did not tell us to call the bishop’s office; the child abuse specialist said to call the police.

    This is what should have happened to Law and Mahony.

  • GBullough

    “I am not an expert on the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals.”

    That’s for dang sure. Indeed, your critique demonstrates that you’re not even really up to speed on the situation in KC. Have you checked out the long-running Facebook page, where his constituents are demanding his resignation over the issue?

    But do carry on; it’s rather entertaining to what pundits pontificate from the perspective of ignorance. Hey, write first, investigate later. That’s…. “journalism?”

  • Bobby

    That’s for dang sure. Indeed, your critique demonstrates that you’re not even really up to speed on the situation in KC. Have you checked out the long-running Facebook page, where his constituents are demanding his resignation over the issue?

    Nope, haven’t checked it out. Not my job to check it out. My job is to critique mainstream media coverage of religion, not to do the reporting myself. There’s a difference, but feel free to carry on with your clueless ranting.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Julia -

    The stories indicate the principal didn’t have knowledge of the child porn, but forwarded to the bishop her concerns about the priest, which would be appropriate in the absence of a reportable crime. A diocesan technician working on the computer found the offensive material, which makes the diocese, not the school, liable.

  • Bern

    Julia: Re Law and Mahony: AMEN.
    Some intrepid AP in LA may yet get to the latter.
    The former, however, is in Rome and unlikely to ever return.

    Bobby: #16 I’d “liked” that except for the “clueless ranting” part which you do leave out of your latest posting on the Finn/KC.

  • Bobby

    Agreed, Bern. I could have and should have said that in a better, kinder way.