This is the 2nd blog in this series dealing with the effort of the state to hold a Roman Catholic bishop legally accountable for failing to follow church procedure in dealing with the sexual misconduct of a clergyman as reported in the NY TIMES on 14 October 2011, Bishop is Indicted; Charge is Failing to Report Abuse. The previous blog is State Wants to Hold Bishop Accountable for Priest’s Misdeeds.
Many church denominations already have acknowledged that sexually misbehaving clergy often have troubles in many areas of their lives – their marriages, their credit, frequent moves, relational troubles with parishioners, bad driving records, etc. There are warning signs which the courts are going to start demanding churches pay attention to in the lives of their clergy. [Some denominational officials say they have in fact come to recognize that sexually misbehaving clergy frequently have credit problems – they run up huge porn bills on their computers, they have expensive sexual dalliances with prostitutes or have to pay off people to keep them silent or are being black mailed. If the state comes to recognize these as legitimate warning signs of future sexual misconduct, the church is going to have to pay attention to these things in its clergy.]
There is a certain level at which the church might want to pay attention to these things anyhow – does the church not have an interest in its clergy behaving morally, above reproach and scandal, in a holy manner? Should the church passively ignore these areas of behavior even if the state doesn’t demand it of us?
For bishops there is another issue – not only can the bishops be held responsible for the misdeeds of their clergy whom they supervise, but also these clergy are ordained by the bishops, so the bishops share some responsibility for putting these men into pastoral office in the first place. So not only must the bishops practice vigilance regarding following Policy Standard and Procedures (PSP) regarding the behavior of clergy, but more diligence is needed by the bishops in knowing the men they choose to ordain. If there are warning signs of problems, these should not be ignored by the bishops or they will have to give account for whom they ordained.
Going back to the NY Times article. Three things really stuck out in my mind:
1) “Bishop Finn acknowledged that he knew of the photographs last December but did not turn them over to the police until May. During that time, the priest, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, is said to have continued to attend church events with children, and took lewd photographs of another young girl.”
Though the bishop did turn over the photos to the police, the bishop waited 5 months to do so. Not only following the law, but doing so ASAP is critical. Church officials are often slow to react to allegations, sometimes because the accused is a friend or well known and they find it hard to believe that their acquaintance could do such a thing. This is where having a clear PSP demanding the investigation of all allegations, regardless of who the accuser or the alleged perpetrator is, is so essential.
2) “But until May the priest attended children’s parties, spent weekends in the homes of parish families, hosted an Easter egg hunt and presided, with the bishop’s permission, at a girl’s First Communion, according to interviews with parishioners and a civil lawsuit filed by a victim’s family.”
When the church hierarchy tries to suppress knowledge of the allegations, it puts other people at risk for being hurt. Of course the church has to have clear PSPs in how to deal publicly with those accused of misconduct, but it also must be willing to follow and enforce those PSPs and not allow exceptions no matter who the accused is or what his rank is.
3) “That report found that the diocese did not follow its own procedures. It also found that Bishop Finn was “too willing to trust” Father Ratigan.”
Exactly what I mentioned in point 1) above. Hierarchy tends to trust its clergy against their parishioners. Many clergy rely on this for helping them deal with parish problems. Some clergy do foolish and damaging things and then expect the bishop to cover their backs. But clear PSPs can help the bishops make better pastoral decisions, if they themselves are enforcing the PSPs and ensuring compliance with the rules by their clergy, by diocesan staff, and by themselves.