Mo. bishop faces bench trial in case tied to abuse

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri judge will try the criminal case against the highest-ranking Catholic official in the U.S. to be charged with shielding an abusive priest, three weeks before the case was to go before a jury.

Bishop Robert Finn and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph are charged with one count of failing to report suspected child abuse to the state.

Their trial was scheduled to start Sept. 24 in a case that carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Instead, a set of stipulated facts negotiated by both sides will be presented Thursday afternoon to Judge John M. Torrence.

Mike Mansur, a spokesman for Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, said a verdict is expected by the end of the day.

The charges stem from the Rev. Shawn Ratigan’s child porn case, in which church officials knew about photos on the priest’s computer but didn’t turn him in for six months.

Bishop Finn has argued that he was not the diocese’s mandated reporter under the law — at the time, the responsibility rested mainly with Vicar General Robert Murphy — so Bishop Finn should not face charges. Attorneys for both Bishop Finn and the diocese also have argued that the state’s law is unconstitutional.

Mr. Mansur said the decision to have a judge, instead of a jury, hear the case so close to the scheduled jury trial is unusual but not unprecedented.

“Bench trials are not typical, but they do happen,” Mr. Mansur said. “Nothing about this case has been particularly typical.”

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.

Bishop 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, a half-year before the photos were found.

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

Father 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.

Bishop Finn sent Ratigan out of state for a psychological examination and then ordered him to stay at a convent in Independence, Mo., where he could say Mass for the nuns. Bishop Finn also ordered Ratigan to avoid contact with children.

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

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