While Bishop Finn’s exit is a good thing for child safety, the Vatican’s process sends a mixed message about the Catholic Church’s commitment to child safety.
To review, it has been nearly three years since, in 2012, Bishop Finn was criminally convicted for failing to report suspected child sexual abuse.
The Court found that Finn “stayed silent for six months after learning that Rev. Shawn Ratigan’s computer contained hundreds of lewd photos of young girls taken in and around churches where he worked.” For five months after this discovery, we know that Ratigan continued taking lewd pictures of little girls. We’ll never know if Ratigan’s exploitation during that period went further. But we do know that, when Church officials finally reported Ratigan to the police in May of 2011, they did so WITHOUT Bishop Finn’s approval.
Bishop Finn was convicted for keeping secrets about dangers of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in 2010 and 2011. Yet, despite Bishop Finn’s criminal conviction, he has been allowed to remain in his position of authority — presumably including authority over thousands of children — for the last three years.
Even now, Finn’s removal appears to come on Finn’s terms: with the Vatican accepting Finn’s offer to resign, without any given reason.
Whatever the Vatican’s intentions, the message that these actions send is that Finn’s conduct was not overly concerning and, as much as possible, should be dealt with privately, with deference to the clergyman, saving face and avoiding scandal. Sadly, that’s a familiar message. According to the news coverage, “[n]o U.S. bishop has [ever] been removed for covering up for guilty clergy.”
Now, imagine the message that the Vatican could have sent if it had proactively chosen to publicly sanction and remove Bishop Finn immediately after his conviction three years ago. That response would have communicated to victims and the world: “We are sorry. This is absolutely unacceptable. We put nothing above our most solemn duty of protecting the children in our care. And we are committed to doing whatever is necessary to fulfill that duty.” What a message that would be.
The Church says it now understands the gravity of child sexual abuse and the suffering of victims. I hope that is true. But, in light of the modern revelations about its history on this issue, the Church must understand that, for the foreseeable future, its actions will speak louder than words. At best, the response to Bishop Finn’s conduct sends a very mixed-up message.