Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Unintentionally Honest Bishop

The sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church (meaning abuse + cover-up by bishops) is not over.  We all wish it were, but it's not.  In Philadelphia, Cardinal Justin Rigali recently removed twenty-one priests from active ministry--only after a grand jury investigation led to charges against several of the priests, including the cardinal's right-hand man, who is accused of helping to cover-up suspected criminal misconduct by priests.

Half-way across the country, another bishop, Robert Finn, has covered up another case of a priest who is alleged to have engaged in crimes against children.  If you want to believe that what the bishops' conference did in 2002 in Dallas fixed the problem, you owe it to yourself to read about the case of Bishop Finn.

Robert Finn should resign as bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph (Missouri) diocese.  Finn has admitted in the last few weeks that he shielded a priest who was behaving inappropriately towards elementary-aged children.  The priest is in jail at the moment on child-pornography charges.  Bishop Finn has claimed he did not bother to read a four-page letter which a Catholic school principal delivered to the diocese one year ago; Finn did not read the letter, that is, until about five days ago, after the priest was arrested.

Think about the best case here:  Finn was indifferent to allegations of inappropriate conduct toward children; he was not interested in learning more after his vicar general summarized the letter for him.  Worst case: The bishop is lying about not knowing the letter's contents until last week.  One hopes the bishop is not lying--indifference would be bad enough, of course.  However, previous abuse cases elsewhere have shown some bishops are not above ignoring allegations of misconduct and then lying about their knowledge of those allegations.

Finn acknowledges he knew the priest had at least one nude photo of a child on his computer as long ago as December 2010, along with numerous other photos of kids from the school.  At that time (he has recently claimed), he had someone in the diocese (who?) describe the photo to a police officer who was a friend of diocesan officials--instead of furnishing the suspect photo to the cops--and was supposedly told the picture did not constitute a criminal offense.  Notice that no one told the diocese that the priest's behavior was normal or harmless.

Did Bishop Finn notify anyone on the diocesan child-protection board, the group that is charged with looking into allegations and calling the police?  He did not.  The head of that board was "flabbergasted" when he heard about these allegations in the last few weeks.

There's no way to get around it:  Finn has proven himself to be a bad bishop, an irresponsible shepherd who let the wolf hang around the sheep even though he heard the wolf howling.  Finn is a bishop who needs to resign immediately.

Ironically, however, Bishop Finn unintentionally spoke a small shard of truth in explaining why he did not turn the priest into the police in December.  He told parishioners, by way of apology, that "We have a priest shortage and we needed a pastor there."  The bishop did not want to heighten the vocation crisis in the church--so, he kept a priest in action who he had every reason to suspect might pose a danger to children.  "We have a priest shortage here..."

In the early 1990s, when Wilton Gregory was bishop of Belleville, Illinois (prior to his service as president of the USCCB and his elevation to his current post as archbishop of Atlanta), he made the brave decision to remove thirteen  of his priests from active ministry because credible evidence existed that each of those men had abused children.  Thirteen priests out of about eighty priests total in the diocese who were then below retirement age.  Such a cut--while absolutely necessary--took courage.  The Belleville diocese had a priest shortage prior to the firing of those thirteen men; obviously, the shortage was worse after they left.  Of course, all in all, the diocese was much better off once abuser priests were removed.  

Every diocese obviously needs to follow its stated policy of calling the police when a suspected abuser is discovered among its workforce.  Yet Bishop Robert Finn is, perhaps, ultimately more in keeping with the times than his colleague, Wilton Gregory.  Finn, a staunch conservative, knows that whatever else happens, we simply, absolutely cannot have women priests--so say Benedict XVI and the Roman Curia (as they attempt to raise to the level of infallibility John Paul II's teaching from 1994 that everyone should please just shut up and stop mentioning women's ordination).  We cannot have married priests--unless, of course, you count those married Anglican priests whom the Catholic church is glad to poach; those married priests who are, by coincidence, afraid enough of women clergy and women bishops to want to split with the Anglican faith.

Joseph Girzone, retired priest and author, has written about the cost that the church incurs as a result of its ban on married priests and women priests.  Bishop Finn's failure to act is reflective of both his negligence as a shepherd and his belief that a priest who is dangerous to children is at least better than a woman priest or a married priest.  He's following the company line on that one.  Which is, sadly, one reason why he likely will not do the right thing and quit.

Catholics in the pews who want to see irresponsible bishops such as Finn go need to speak loudly:  both with their voices and their wallets.  If you have a bad bishop, why not put a note in the collection basket that you are praying for the bishop's conversion.  A prayer of that sort is indeed a meaningful contribution to the church's welfare.  Then give your money to the St. Vincent de Paul Society, your local food pantry, or a crisis pregnancy center.

And if you should happen to discover you are not alone in this effort--if you find, for instance, that dozens or hundreds of your fellow Catholics locally are behaving similarly--why not contact your local newspaper or TV station so they can report on this phenomenon?

NB:  Thom, at Faith in the 21st Century, has a good discussion of the Kansas City case, with some attention to what Finn really wants to spend his energy on:  bringing back Latin, liturgical lace, and everything that might undermine the reforms of Vatican II.  On the other side of the coin, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf, at the arch-conservative What Does The Prayer Really Say, has a pro-Finn commentary; in Fr. Z's comment box, one finds folks claiming that Finn's approach to this case was just dandy.


PatO said...

Finn had similar cases and similar apologies in 2005 and 2008.

He's like every other Catholic bishop. He hides the truth about pedophile priests to protect the church's reputation.

Steve said...

Pat, I wasn't aware of Finn's history as a bishop. Thanks for bringing this up. (When will they ever learn?? And how can we get bishops to change?)

PatO said...


You push for a Grand Jury investigation, and throw them in jail. They did it in Philadelphia, and the results were horrifying. Just read the first 6 pages of to see.

Steve said...

Pat, thanks for linking to the 2003 grand jury report. It's horrendous, you're right. (I had previously skimmed the Jan 2011 grand jury report, also out of Philly. Incredible and disgusting--the abuse and the cover-up alike.)

Have to wonder what the examen of conscience was like for the church leaders who covered this up. Did they even consider the evil--not to mention the crimes--they were helping to perpetrate?