In the last four days, the picture has grown dimmer for Bishop Robert Finn, and the evidence of wrongdoing at the highest levels of local Catholic hierarchy has grown stronger.
And all because of two articles in The Kansas City Star.
The first was a thoroughly researched and beautifully written profile of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, who stands charged with three felony counts of possessing child pornography. It ran on Page 1 on Saturday.
The second was an “As I See It, ” Op-Ed piece by Pat O’Neill a respected marketing consultant in Kansas City. It ran on Page A-11 on Monday. O’Neill, a practicing Catholic, called for the resignations of Finn and Vicar General Robert Murphy, and he challenged prosecutors to bring charges against the two.
The profile and the opinion piece served as a one-two punch that took a lot of steam out Bishop Finn’s time-killing initiative two weeks ago, when he appointed former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves to investigate the diocese’s handling of sex-crimes cases, including the Ratigan case.
First, let’s look at the profile, which bore the by-lines of federal courts reporter Mark Morris and Northland reporter Glenn E. Rice. Rice has been on the Ratigan-Finn story from the start; this story represented Morris’ first work on the story.
Two of the main points that Morris and Rice established were, first, that Ratigan is — like Finn — a crusading, pro-life cleric, and, second, that Ratigan and Finn have spent time together.
The fact that they have more than a passing relationship could well indicate that after lewd photos of young girls were found in Ratigan’s laptop computer, Finn was loath to turn in a priest whom he knew quite well and who shared his pro-life stance. That’s been my conviction ever since Mike Rice, a former KC Star reporter, wrote a comment on this blog May 20, saying that he knew of people who had stopped attending Mass at Ratigan’s Northland parish because of his conservative ideology.
Regarding the Finn-Ratigan relationship, Morris and Rice dug up records revealing that in January 2007, Finn joined Ratigan and 40 high school students from St. Joseph for a bus ride to Washington, D.C., for the annual March for Life rally.
One of the most fascinating glimpses of Ratigan’s pro-life zeal was that he had his Harley-Davidson motorcycle decorated with themes that celebrated life.
“The gas tank bore the image of an angel bringing a baby down from heaven,” the story said, “while another spot carried a cross emblazoned with a ribbon reading, ‘Pro-Bikers for Life.’ ”
The entire story is a great read, but it contains, in particular, two killer paragraphs.
One is about Ratigan’s propensity to gamble. (He played the Missouri Lottery, for example.)
“In December 2010,” the story said, “whether he realized it or not, Ratigan placed one of the lowest percentage bets of his life when he handed his laptop computer to a repair person. Would the technician notice the allegedly lewd photos of girls under the age of 12? And if so, would he mention the photos to anyone?”
Wisely, the reporters let the questions hang in the air because everyone knows the answers.
The second memorable paragraph spelled out what happened after church officials seized Ratigan’s computer.
“The next day, Ratigan, the son of a man who suffered from profound depression, retreated to his garage, fired up the pro-life Harley and waited for death.”
We all know how that episode came out, too.
O’Neill’s column carries a tremendous wallop in no small measure because he is well known in Catholic circles and even served for a time as communications consultant to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph and the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
In his piece, O’Neill showed that he, too, can turn a phrase. Consider this:
“When Bishop Finn arrived here in 2005, he was one of a new wave of American bishops charged with turning the tide of public opinion away from the abuse scandals and back to core conservative Catholic values and respect for the church and its priestly vocations. Instead, Bishop Finn is up to his collar in a flood of renewed scrutiny and anger.”
O’Neill went on to point out that despite hundreds of reports of priest sexual abuse over the last two decades, “only a handful of pedophile priests and no complicit church supervisors have been subjected to civil punishment, i.e., jail time.”
The column concluded with a flourish:
“The time has come for us to harness our collective anger and embarrassment and use that energy to change the way our church and our dioceses operate, once and for all.
“After all these years, it is starkly obvious to me that there will be no change for the better in the Kansas City diocese until men like Bishop Robert Finn and his Vicar General Robert Murphy are forced to resign, and criminals in collars are subject to secular trial and incarceration.”
In the p.r. battle that is being waged between Bishop Finn and his supporters on one hand and his critics on the other, the advantage has once again shifted to the critics, partly because of a great news story and a damn good p.r. man.