Mo. bishop’s bench trial averts longer jury trial

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) ? A judge’s conviction of the first American bishop criminally charged in the clergy sex abuse scandal spared young victims in the case from a longer, emotional jury trial and church leaders from embarrassing evidence, attorneys said.

The bench trial on misdemeanor charges of failing to report suspected child abuse, while still damaging to Bishop Robert Finn, wrapped up in a day Thursday, and the split verdict came in about an hour. Finn, the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic official charged with shielding an abusive priest, was convicted of one count and acquitted on a second.

Prosecutors dropped similar misdemeanor charges against the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and the judge is expected to sign off Friday on the dismissed counts.

The charges stemmed from allegations that Finn and the diocese failed to report to authorities that pornographic images of children had been found on the laptop computer of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan.

“The advantages of the process we used was that all of the victims and the victims’ families were spared a very trying process,” Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said Thursday. “These victims’ families ? and I’ve spoken with many, many of them about today’s case ? they were all ecstatic that this could end today, with their child’s anonymity protected.”

Finn received two years of probation, but that sentence was suspended and will be wiped from his record if he adheres to a set of conditions that include mandatory abuse reporting training and setting aside $10,000 in diocese money for abuse victim counseling.

“This could have been a lengthy and emotionally difficult trial for all persons affected,” attorneys for Finn said in a statement after the sentence was handed down. “The bench trial, with a stipulation of testimony, has avoided the need for live testimony from diocesan employees, parishioners and others.”

Rebecca Randles, a Kansas City attorney representing a dozen of Ratigan’s victims in civil lawsuits, said it was “an amazing outcome, getting a bishop convicted of anything.

“Of course we wish the diocese was also convicted, but we understand the process and how it works,” she said.

Ratigan admitted to taking photos of children 2 to 9 years old and pleaded guilty last month to federal charges of producing and attempting to produce child pornography. His sentencing has not been set.

Finn had been scheduled for a jury trial starting Sept. 24. But prosecutors and Finn’s defense team surprised the court by agreeing to a set of stipulated facts, negotiated by both sides, that were presented to Jackson County Judge John M. Torrence ahead of Thursday’s bench trial.

Torrence heard brief opening statements Thursday before recessing to consider his verdict, which came about an hour after the trial’s start. No witnesses or other evidence were presented.

Finn, dressed in his traditional black garb, sat calmly in court, even as he heard the verdict. He apologized before being sentenced, saying, “I truly regret and am sorry for the hurt these events have caused.”

Finn initially was charged with one misdemeanor count, but a second was added to acknowledge two separate time periods in which he failed to report suspected abuse.

On Thursday, he was acquitted of a charge spanning Dec. 17, 2010, to Feb. 10, 2011, because Torrence said there was no evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Finn knew about the pornographic photos.

The charge on which Finn was convicted involved a period from Feb. 11, to May 11, 2011. Finn sent Ratigan to stay at a convent in Independence, Mo., during that time and ordered him to stay away from children and avoid taking photos. Prosecutors said that showed Finn knew about accusations against Ratigan, and the judge agreed.

Finn argued he should not face charges because he was not the diocese’s mandated reporter under the law. At the time, the responsibility rested mainly with Vicar General Robert Murphy.

A computer technician found child pornography on Ratigan’s laptop in December 2010 and reported it to the diocese. Of the hundreds of images found, many focused on the crotch areas of clothed children and one series showed the exposed genitals of a girl believed to be 3 or 4 years old.

Finn has acknowledged he was told in December 2010 about the images. The bishop also has acknowledged that a parochial school principal had raised concerns about Ratigan’s behavior around children in May 2010.

State law requires that the Division of Family Services be informed of such evidence of abuse.

Murphy confronted Ratigan about the photos, and the next day, Ratigan was found in his garage with his motorcycle running and a suicide note that apologized for any harm he had caused. Ratigan recovered after being hospitalized.

Finn sent Ratigan out of state for a psychological examination, and then ordered him to stay at the convent.

Later, after the diocese received reports Ratigan had attended a St. Patrick’s Day parade and a child’s birthday party, Finn ordered that police be given copies of the photos recovered from Ratigan’s laptop.

Since 2002, when the abuse scandal erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has spent tens of millions of dollars on child safety, including employee background checks and training for teachers and others on identifying abuse. Dioceses nationwide have removed hundreds of clergy who had been accused of molestation and barred them from any church work.

Finn’s lack of action to address Ratigan, even as the larger church moved to implement reforms, frustrated Missouri parishioners and prompted some to call for Finn’s resignation.