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Kansas City Catholics Divided Over Vatican Investigation Of Bishop

Bishop Robert Finn of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese was convicted of shielding a sexually abusive priest in 2012. He is now the subject of a Vatican investigation.
Patrick Semansky

A Catholic bishop normally governs pretty much unchecked in his diocese — only the pope can dislodge a bishop. And each time Catholics celebrate Mass in Kansas City, Mo., they pray for Bishop Robert Finn, right after they pray for Pope Francis.

But some Catholics here, like David Biersmith, a Eucharistic minister, refuse to go along.

"When the priest says that, you know, you're supposed say it with him, but I just leave that out," Biersmith says. "I just don't say it. Because he's not my bishop, as far as I'm concerned."

Much of the discontent in Kansas City has to do with an incident four years ago. A computer technician found hundreds of lewd photos of young girls on a priest's laptop. The priest was Shawn Ratigan, and it wasn't the first sign that he was a pedophile.

But Finn didn't tell authorities. Instead, he sent Ratigan to a therapist, switched Ratigan's job and asked him to stay away from children. Ratigan didn't, and months later a diocese official finally reported him.

Ratigan was sentenced to 50 years in prison for child pornography, and Finn drew two years of probation for shielding him. Finn is now the subject of a rare Vatican investigation that began in September.

Jeff Weis was once just a regular parishioner in the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City, but after Ratigan was sentenced, he knew he had to act.

"What I was looking for was, what is the church's response to this?" he says. "What is the bishop's response?"

The church set up new protocols for reporting child abuse and hired a former federal prosecutor to investigate the Ratigan case. But Finn stayed on as bishop, so Weis launched an online petition asking the pope to remove him. It has drawn more than 260,000 signatures.

"In this environment today, when the church is moving to protect its children, how, how, how could that happen?"

Other parishioners sent the same message in different ways, and then last fall, the Vatican dispatched an archbishop here to investigate.

"Out of the blue I got a call, and they were arranging meetings for the archbishop to talk with people about the Bishop Finn issues," says Jim Caccamo, who led a board for the diocese to advise Finn on sexual abuse issues.

While Caccamo calls Finn a wonderful, holy man, he can't fathom why he failed to report Ratigan to authorities.

"Oh my gosh!" he says. "In this environment today, when the church is moving to protect its children, how, how, how could that happen?"

A lot of people are asking the same question. James Connell, a priest and canon lawyer in Milwaukee, says Finn broke protocols the church set up after the huge sexual abuse crisis in 2002. Even high-ranking church officials have publicly weighed in.

Cardinal Sean O'Malley from Boston, a close adviser to Pope Francis, addressed the Finn issue on 60 Minuteslast November .

"It's a question that the Holy See needs to address urgently," O'Malley told CBS's Norah O'Donnell. "There's a recognition of that from Pope Francis."

Francis recently demoted Finn's closest ally in Rome, a conservative cardinal named Raymond Burke. But Finn still has plenty of support in Kansas City.

"Well, I love Bishop Finn," says John Purk, a recently ordained deacon in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese. "He's a great friend. He's a supporter. You know exactly what he's thinking because it just rolls off his tongue."

Like Finn, Purk holds traditional Catholic views of marriage, birth control, abortion and theology. It's a belief system that Purk says reveals the deity of Jesus.

"Now, a lot of people have a problem with that, just like they had a problem with Jesus," he says. "And so, the problems that Jesus encountered, this bishop encounters."

Purk says Finn faced a real dilemma over Ratigan. He says the bishop got conflicting advice, and he notes that Ratigan attempted suicide when his lewd photographs came to light.

"I think the bishop did the best that he could have done, with the information that he had, having to balance mercy and justice with a man who was suicidal," Purk says.

American Catholics are looking to see how the Vatican balances the traditional autonomy of bishops with the need to better address the church's ongoing sexual abuse issue and the pope's selection for leader of the diocese in Kansas City.

Copyright 2015 KCUR 89.3

Corrected: January 13, 2015 at 11:00 PM CST
The audio of this story, as did a previous Web version, incorrectly identifies David Biersmith as a deacon. He is actually a Eucharistic minister.
I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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