KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Computer technician Ken Kes was supposed to be repairing a laptop for a local priest as part of his work for a Catholic Diocese in Kansas City. But as Kes opened a series of picture files stored on the computer, he slowly realized that the odd images of young children were not merely strange; they seemed pornographic.
“I looked at the first one. It was a young girl climbing up the back of a pickup truck and I thought, huh, that’s kind of a neat shot,” the 59-year-old Kes recalled. “The next one that I clicked on was a girl... climbing out of swimming pool and all it showed was her rear end. Then there was a little girl on the grass with her legs spread. All you could see was the area from her belly button to her knees.”
By the time Kes got to a graphic photo of a little girl on a bed, exposed below the waist, his hands were shaking and he was in full panic.
“I stopped looking right there and got on the phone,” he said.
That discovery last December yielded hundreds of such photos on the laptop of Father Shawn Ratigan, ultimately landing the 46-year-old priest in jail on multiple child pornography charges. He is awaiting trial next summer after pleading not guilty and remains jailed.
And, in what Catholic experts say is a first-ever event, authorities have filed criminal charges against Bishop Robert Finn, the leader of the 133,000-member Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, because despite knowing about the pictures, Finn did not alert authorities.
Bishop Finn is the highest-ranking Catholic official to face criminal charges in the United States in connection with a child sexual abuse case. He is slated for a preliminary court hearing December 15 on a misdemeanour charge of failing to report a child might be subject to abuse.
Finn and the diocese he leads say they are not guilty, arguing that they did not know the pictures constituted child pornography.
Neither Ratigan nor Bishop Finn would agree to interview requests and their lawyers declined to respond to the allegations against them.
But police reports, interviews with individuals involved in the events, an investigative report commissioned by the diocese and overseen by former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves, as well as lawsuits filed against Ratigan, the diocese and Bishop Finn, paint a stark picture of how Catholic leaders overlooked numerous warnings about Father Ratigan’s behaviour - and ultimately wound up in legal jeopardy themselves.
Kansas City is but one of many communities to struggle with abuse allegations against a Catholic priest and complaints of cover-ups by church officials.
But the Ratigan case marks a first: this time, civil authorities are compelling Catholic leaders, through criminal charges, to face accountability for what happened in a way that goes far beyond statements of regret or financial settlements with victims seen in other church sex abuse cases.
Few expect Bishop Finn will actually serve significant, if any, prison time if convicted. He faces a maximum of one year in prison and a $1,000 (640.90 pounds) fine on the misdemeanour charge, and some sort of plea arrangement is expected by both critics and supporters.
The case has parallels to recent events at Penn State University, where two university officials have been charged with not reporting allegations of child abuse by a former assistant football coach. In that case, the storied college football program headed for decades by coach Joe Paterno has been likened to the church in its culture of secrecy and impunity.
Kansas City lawyer Rebecca Randles is representing four families who have brought civil suits against Bishop Finn and the diocese. She hopes that forcing church officials to accept responsibility for not reporting abuse to civil authorities will serve notice not only on the church but on all insular institutions that seek to protect their own and keep law enforcement at bay.
“The indictment of Bishop Finn is a watershed moment. We are getting a glimpse into what has been business as usual. And shedding light on business as usual is the first way to end business as usual,” Randles said.
The events unfolded much like a melodrama: there were warnings about Father Ratigan’s behaviour before the discovery of the photos. Then came anguished debate by those who saw the photos over how to react, whether or not to call police. Upon being discovered, the priest tried to kill himself, only narrowly surviving. The priest’s laptop was destroyed before police could see it.
And in a turn that haunts parents, after recovering from his suicide attempt and being banished from his parish, Ratigan allegedly continued to victimize children when unsuspecting families welcomed the priest into their homes.
The prologue to the saga was grim enough. In 2008 the Kansas City Diocese agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by 47 plaintiffs who claimed that as children decades ago they were repeatedly sexually abused by a group of Kansas City priests. Those events did not involve Ratigan, occurring well before he was ordained, but it put the diocese on high alert for any improper behaviour.
Bishop Finn helped oversee the 2008 settlement, listening to accounts from victims who detailed priest-organized parties that featured drug and alcohol use, pornography and repeated child rape. The diocese, which spans 27 counties of northern and western Missouri, paid the group $10 million and pledged to put in place rigorous policies that would protect children from predatory priests.
For the last few years, training on how to identify a child predator has been mandatory for all employees of the diocese, including more than 1,000 teachers at the 28 elementary and eight Catholic high schools within the diocese. The diocese posts hotline numbers on its website, has a special review panel for child abuse cases and asks anyone suspecting harm to a child to speak out.
At the time of the 2008 settlement, Finn vowed reform was a top priority. He declared he would be vigilant in making sure nothing like that ever happened again.
And then it did.
The camera was an early clue. From the time he was ordained into the Catholic priesthood in 2004, Father Shawn Ratigan carried a camera with him nearly all the time. At church and school events and during many frequent visits to the homes of families within his parish, the gregarious middle-aged priest was known for his skill in capturing events with both a camera and his cell phone.
Children were a favoured subject for his photos, and his activities. Ratigan readily talked about how much he enjoyed young people, encouraged children to sit on his lap, pushed them high on swings and frequently offered hugs. The burly, goateed priest also sought out children to “friend” on Facebook and seemed eager to attend field trips, birthday parties, ice skating events and the like.
As one of five brothers and sisters in a large Catholic family, Ratigan was also known as a favourite uncle to his 11 nieces and nephews. His home held stuffed animals and doll-shaped towels, and children were frequent visitors.
Ratigan sometimes showed a bit of a wild side though, according to those who know him. He loved his Harley motorcycle, shaved his head and smoked cigarettes. Maker’s Mark Kentucky Bourbon was his drink of choice.
Still, his work with the Catholic Church was his main focus. After dating women in his youth and working in a family business that refurbished churches, he was ordained as a priest in 2004. Ratigan seemed to transition easily into the roles of pastor and chaplain at parish schools.
There were early complaints about Ratigan’s behaviour. But it was not until after he was assigned pastor of St. Patrick Parish and School in Kansas City in July 2009 that some parents and teachers raised a series of concerns about his behaviour involving children.
Some within the parish worried that his close interaction with children resembled the “grooming” behaviour of a predator. But when these complaints were raised with Ratigan, he brushed them aside and insisted he was doing no wrong, according to the Graves report to the diocese.
The priest’s Facebook page also raised red flags. It featured photos of him swimming in a lake with a young girl, and pictures of children sitting on his lap.
In one incident mentioned in the Graves report, parents of Girl Scouts planting flowers at Ratigan’s townhouse complained that they were alarmed to find a pair of young girl’s underwear in a planter in his yard.
As complaints mounted, St. Patrick School Principal Julie Hess decided to take the concerns to diocese officials, putting together a written report outlining the complaints from parents and teachers.
In May 2010, Hess met with Deacon Mike Lewis, who asked her to report her concerns directly to the diocese main office. Neither Lewis nor Hess would agree to interviews, but their accounts are contained in lawsuits against the diocese and Finn and in the Graves report.
Hess’s concerns eventually made their way to Monsignor Robert Murphy, the second-ranking officer in the diocese.
As administrator of the diocese’s “response team” that investigates sexual abuse of children, Murphy was supposed to work with the diocese’s Independent Review Board, set up in 2002 to make recommendations to the bishop when sexual abuse of minors was suspected.
Monsignor Murphy did act on Hess’ concerns, meeting with Ratigan and ordering him to maintain proper boundaries with children. He also notified Bishop Finn of the situation. But he did not take the issue to the review board because Ratigan’s acts were thought to be “boundary violations” but not sexual abuse, according to information from diocese officials in the Graves report.
For a few months Ratigan seemed to have gotten the message. The priest emailed an apology to St. Patrick’s teachers and Principal Hess: “My heart is heavy because I love the kids and I would never do anything to harm them. I promise that nothing will happen again,” Ratigan wrote.
The complaints subsided through the summer and the concerns seemed to have been addressed. A new school year started and fall turned to winter. Then Father Ratigan decided he needed his laptop fixed.
“A BAD THING”
It was mid-December of last year when Ratigan complained about problems with his laptop and a St. Patrick office manager called Kes, the computer repairman. Kes picked up the laptop on December 16 and took it to his home office.
Raised Catholic, Kes had served as an altar boy growing up in Minnesota and had fond memories of going to baseball games with his priest. He attended private Catholic schools through high school before drifting away from the church.
When Kes and his wife moved to her hometown of Kansas City to raise their three girls, he approached the diocese to seek a job handling computer technology jobs.
Kes had several friends in the diocese, and he felt particularly close to Deacon Lewis. He also knew many of the priests, Ratigan among them. Though he thought the priest a bit of a “grump,” he shared Ratigan’s interest in motorcycles and helped him set up Internet services in his home.
So when Kes discovered the photos on Ratigan’s computer, he was stunned. He dialled his oldest brother and asked what he should do.
“He told me to turn it over to the police,” Kes said.
Kes made more phone calls, to another brother and to the pastor of a local Baptist church. Both told him to call police. Kes then called his wife of 39 years, Linda, who, he said, gave him a different answer: Take the computer back to the church and tell them what he had found.
Kes agreed and called the diocese to alert them to his discovery and let them know he was bringing the laptop back.
“I didn’t want it in my possession,” said Kes. “This is a bad thing.”
Kes rushed the laptop back to the St. Patrick parish office, where he found his friend Deacon Lewis waiting. He showed Lewis the alarming photos and remembers that Lewis seemed “shocked” at what he was seeing.
Kes said he felt assured the matter would be referred to police and he left the laptop with Lewis, confident something would quickly be done.
According to the Graves report, Lewis did act quickly. He immediately notified Monsignor Murphy of the discovery of disturbing images on Ratigan’s laptop. He then raced to get the laptop from St. Patrick‘s, where Ratigan was expected to arrive shortly, to Murphy’s office at the Chancery, the main office for the diocese.
Murphy also acted quickly. Before even receiving the laptop, Murphy placed a call to a member of the diocese’s Independent Review Board who was a police officer, Rick Smith.
But Monsignor Murphy, who had not yet seen the pictures, only passed on Deacon Lewis’ description of one nude, non-sexual image of a young girl, thought to be one of Ratigan’s nieces, and asked if it might be considered child pornography. He did not tell Smith there were hundreds of troublesome photos, according to the accounts of those involved.
Without having seen the one photo described or getting any indication there might be more like it, Smith consulted with an expert in his department and then called back with a conjecture that the photo might or might not be pornography. Smith did not suspect that the diocese might be holding back any information.
Monsignor Murphy then sought more input, asking for the diocese’s information management director, Julie Creech, to review the photos once the laptop arrived. Murphy also alerted Finn to the situation.
When Deacon Lewis arrived at the Chancery, he handed over the laptop with a warning to Monsignor Murphy that the situation was a “time bomb” that required urgent handling.
Creech took charge. Digging into the files on the laptop, she found hundreds of photos, some that appeared to have been taken from under tables, focused on crotch areas of children. Girls wearing shorts who appeared to be 8-10 years old were pictured with legs spread. A toddler was seen with her diaper pulled back to expose her. Creech also found bookmarked websites on the computer for two-way mirrors, spy pens and tiny hidden cameras designed to look like ink pens.
Creech copied the photos and advised Monsignor Murphy to call police, according to an interview she gave for the Graves investigation. Diocese communications director Rebecca Summers also told Murphy to call police. Neither would comment for this story. Still, nobody called authorities.
Ratigan initially denied knowing what was on the computer, telling Deacon Lewis it had been given to him by another person, according to the Graves report. The next day, December 17, the day of the diocese Christmas party, Ratigan did not show up for mass. Lewis went to Ratigan’s home to check on him, and ended up calling emergency responders who found the priest nearly dead from carbon monoxide poisoning. He was lying on the floor of his garage next to his motorcycle. Authorities reported that he had a cell phone in one hand and his rosary in the other.
At the hospital, some of Ratigan’s relatives met with Deacon Lewis, who explained to the family that some inappropriate images had been found on the priest’s laptop. Lewis did not say they involved children, according to Darron Blankenship, Ratigan’s brother-in-law, and the family never suspected the pictures might be evidence of illegal activity.
The family assumed the photos must be personal pictures of Ratigan with a woman, or perhaps adult pornography. The thought that the pictures might be of children never seemed possible, said Blankenship.
“I’d known him 16 years. He was one of my good friends,” said Blankenship, who is married to Ratigan’s youngest sister.
At first it looked as though Ratigan might not survive. But the priest recovered and was sent to a psychiatric hospital in Kansas City. Still lacking details from the diocese, Ratigan’s brothers and sisters took their children to visit Ratigan in the hospital.
The children of St. Patrick parish were encouraged by their teachers to send get well cards to Ratigan, a detail that still outrages many parents nearly a year later.
As Ratigan regained his health, Bishop Finn, Monsignor Murphy and others in the diocese continued to agonize over what to do. More diocese officials and staffers were brought into the discussion, including consultations with legal counsel. Diocese officials ultimately concluded that the pictures did not appear to be pornographic because they did not depict sexual conduct, sexual contact, a sexual performance, or meet other criteria they believed would constitute child pornography, according to the Graves report and interviews with other sources.
Some inside the diocese believed that Murphy had fully explained the situation to police and had been told the pictures were not pornographic.
For his part, Bishop Finn maintains that he never viewed the photos himself but only had them described to him. In comments following Ratigan’s arrest, he called the pictures “inappropriate photographs or images.”
Following Ratigan’s recovery from his suicide attempt, the bishop sent him for psychiatric evaluation in Pennsylvania. After getting an opinion that Ratigan was not a paedophile from a Pennsylvania doctor who specializes in treating priests for mental health issues, Bishop Finn assigned Ratigan to live in a mission house with aging priests in Independence, Missouri, and warned him to stay away from his computer and not to use his camera.
As the time stretched on, diocese officials began to debate whether or not they should try to identify the children in the photos. They did not in the end make such an effort, and though diocese officials discussed calling the Missouri Department of Family Services, no such contact was made. The diocese also decided not to refer the matter to its own Independent Review Board based on the rationale that no victims had complained.
And in a move the diocese ultimately grew to regret, it continued to keep the matter a secret from the families attending its churches and schools.
“I constantly look at the teachers now and wonder who knew,” said Thu Meng, whose 5-year-old daughter used to insist on hugging Father Ratigan when Meng dropped her off at kindergarten.
Because so many of the photos do not show the faces of the little girls, Meng still is not certain that her daughter escaped Ratigan’s lens.
“Nothing was done. There was no notification of parents until after he was arrested in May,” she said. “Bishop Finn was in that case in 2008. Anything should have been a red flag for him.”
By mid-February, Bishop Finn had laid down strict orders for Ratigan to stay away from children with the exception of celebrating mass for some youth and student groups. Finn ordered him also to stay away from cameras and computers, to stay in counseling and to refrain from ministry outside of work he might do at the Franciscan Prayer Center. The center housed elderly nuns and was located near the Vincentian Mission House where Ratigan was living, according to diocese officials.
But Ratigan did not adhere to the bishop’s orders and in March attended a St. Patrick’s Day parade, and went to a sixth-grade girl’s birthday party. Bishop Finn has stated publicly that he confronted Ratigan about the violations and again admonished him to stay away from children.
Also in March, Finn gave Ratigan’s computer to one of Ratigan’s brothers, explaining that the diocese no longer needed the computer and that Ratigan himself was banned from using computers. Finn has said publicly that the family asked for the laptop back, but family members say Finn asked them to take it.
The family at first considered giving the computer to a college-bound family member, but recalling the diocese’s warning of inappropriate images that the family thought were of adults, they ultimately destroyed the machine. They had no knowledge the computer might contain evidence needed for a criminal investigation, said Blankenship.
Concerns continued to mount. In April, Ratigan was seen interacting with children who came to the Franciscan Prayer Center for overnight retreats. Also in April, Ratigan hosted an Easter party with several young children among the attendees, including his family.
In fact, on Easter Sunday, Ratigan took more pornographic pictures of a young girl, prosecutors and plaintiffs in the civil lawsuits have alleged.
And according to a lawsuit brought by the parents of one alleged victim, Ratigan tried to take lewd photos of their daughter when invited to their house for dinner. Ratigan had contacted the girl on Facebook and her parents were concerned for his welfare following what they believed was an accident that hospitalized him in December.
They caught him taking a picture on his cell phone under their dinner table, the lawsuit states. Ratigan’s lawyer declined to comment on this or other allegations.
Meanwhile, Kes continued to wonder and worry about the priest and the photos he had seen. He let his friend Deacon Lewis know how upset he was that police had not been called. He told Reuters he did not feel he had any evidence to take to police himself since he longer had the laptop. But as the months passed, Kes warned Lewis he would soon be going to police himself if the Diocese did not.
It was mid-May when Monsignor Murphy finally brought in authorities. Without first alerting Bishop Finn, he met with Captain Smith, the same police official he had reached out to in December with the description of a single nude photo. This time, however, Murphy’s story was different.
There were hundreds of photos, he told Smith.
The police captain told Murphy he needed to give the laptop to authorities immediately. But the machine had been destroyed several weeks prior, leaving only the copies the diocese had made to be handed over as evidence.
The destruction of the laptop, a key piece of evidence, was a significant blow to the investigation. Police had no way of knowing if the diocese had copied every photo, said Kansas City police detective Maggie McGuire, who sits on the FBI Cyber Crimes Task Force and led the Ratigan investigation.
“It was huge not to have the laptop,” said McGuire.
Still, she said, investigators found explicit photos on a computer at St. Mary Parish where Ratigan had served from 2005-2009, which aided the investigation. Police also found compact discs belonging to Ratigan loaded with photos of young girls as well as a CD inside an envelope attached to a receipt dated April 2004. It contained 14 images of what police said were child pornography involving a girl who appeared to be 3 to 4 years old. Many photos appeared to have been taken in or around the churches Ratigan served.
The volume and content of the photos was unsettling even to veteran detective McGuire. “He’s the priest. I was raised very Catholic and went to Catholic schools,” McGuire said. “We see a lot of things in this job I do. But this is unbelievable to me.”
Father Ratigan was arrested on May 18 and subsequently charged with three counts of felony possession of child pornography in Clay County, one of several jurisdictions that overlap with the boundaries of the diocese. He also was charged in U.S. District Court with 13 federal counts of producing and possessing child pornography.
Following Ratigan’s arrest, Bishop Finn sought prayers and forgiveness: “I deeply regret that we didn’t ask the police earlier to conduct a full investigation,” Finn said in a statement. “Let us pray for each other in these difficult days.”
Five months after Ratigan’s arrest, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker obtained a grand jury indictment against Bishop Finn, charging him with failing to report Ratigan to authorities as he was legally mandated to do. Baker also obtained an indictment against the diocese, and says that holds accountable all the officials there who failed to act.
“It’s all a violation of trust. Kids can’t protect themselves,” Baker said in an interview. “All of us should be looking to safeguard kids.”
The charges are based on “mandated reporter” laws, which require school officials, clergy and virtually anyone with access to and control over a child to immediately alert child protective services and law enforcement if they have any reason to suspect abuse or child endangerment.
The prosecutor in neighboring Clay County also pursued criminal charges but reached an agreement with Finn in November requiring the bishop to undergo close civil oversight in exchange for avoiding criminal charges.
Immediately following Ratigan’s arrest, the diocese issued a statement, saying its foremost concern was for “the safety and welfare” of the unidentified children in the photos and their families.
“Preventing and reporting the suspicion of abuse is a required response to what we are called to do as followers of Jesus,” the diocese said.
Some are calling for the bishop’s ouster. A Facebook page has been created called “Bishop Finn Must Go” and critics have held protests outside diocese offices.
Members of the Ratigan family say they are furious at Finn and the diocese for not sharing information with them. During the months preceding the arrest, they continued to let Ratigan spend time with his nieces and nephews. “When I learned Shawn had been arrested for child pornography, a feeling of anger, disgust, and hatred came over me like I had never felt before,” said Blankenship.
In addition to the criminal charges against Finn and the diocese, four civil lawsuits have been filed alleging the actions of the bishop and others in the diocese amounted to a cover-up, charges they deny.
The 141-page Graves report, commissioned by the diocese itself and published in August, does not address the legal issues, but did conclude that diocese officials failed to “properly react” as a “direct result of Diocesan officials’ decisions and oversight.”
Bishop Finn has sought to calm parishioners, holding meetings with parents, promising to expand diocese policies to better protect children and declaring that “things must change.”
He has banned Ratigan from performing sacred rites of the church and started the process of dismissing him from the clergy entirely, said diocese spokeswoman Becky Summers. The bishop has also appointed a new ombudsman to handle complaints about priests, and on November 30, the diocese established a Department of Child and Youth Protection and named a director to lead that office starting December 1.
“The leadership understands this is something that must be addressed,” said Jenifer Valenti, a former assistant prosecuting attorney for Jackson County hired this summer to be the diocese ombudsman.
Bishop Finn maintains the diocese will get through the crisis. In a statement issued in October following his indictment, Finn said: “With deep faith, we will weather this storm and never cease to fulfill our mission, even in moments of adversity.”
Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Claudia Parsons