KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Bishop Robert W. Finn was found guilty Thursday on one count of failing to report suspected child abuse, becoming the first Roman Catholic bishop in the United States in the decades-long sexual abuse scandals to be convicted of shielding a pedophile priest.
In an abruptly announced bench trial that lasted a little over an hour, Judge John M. Torrence of Jackson County Circuit Court found Finn guilty of one misdemeanor charge and not guilty on a second. The charges each carried a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine, but Finn received a sentence of two years of court-supervised probation.
It was a sudden ending to a case that has consumed the church in Kansas City and threatened to turn into a sensational, first-ever trial of a sitting prelate. The case had been scheduled for a jury trial later this month, but Wednesday the prosecution announced that it would be decided in one afternoon before a judge.
Finn said in court before he was sentenced, ‘‘I am pleased and grateful that the prosecution and the courts have allowed this matter to be completed. The protection of children is paramount.’’
He added, ‘‘I truly regret and am sorry for the hurt that these events have caused.’’
The church managed to avoid a lengthy, highly public jury trial like the one that occurred this year in Philadelphia, where a high-ranking assistant to the archbishop was convicted of child endangerment and sentenced to prison for three to six years. The trial before the judge in Kansas City also spared the young victims or their parents from having to testify. The judge dropped two charges against the diocese itself.
The case arose when Finn failed to report the Rev. Shawn Ratigan to the police in December 2010, after the bishop learned that his employees had discovered hundreds of photographs of young girls’ genitals, naked and clothed, on a laptop computer that Ratigan had brought in for repairs.
After Ratigan survived a suicide attempt, the bishop reassigned him to live in a convent and stay away from children. But Ratigan continued to attend church events and take lewd pictures of girls for another five months, until the church reported him in May 2011. The bishop was found guilty on the charge relating only to that time period.
The prosecutor, Jean Peters Baker, told the judge in opening arguments that Finn had been given ample warning that Ratigan was a danger to children. She said that the priest had even admitted to Finn that he had ‘‘a pornography problem.’’
The prosecutor said, ‘‘Defendant Finn is the ultimate authority. The buck does stop with him.’’
In May 2010, the principal of the Catholic elementary school where Ratigan was working sent a letter to the diocese raising alarm about him. The letter said he had put a girl on his lap on a bus ride, encouraged children to reach into his pockets for candy and parents discovered girls’ underwear in a planter outside his house. Finn has said he did not read the letter until a year later.
A computer technician discovered the photographs on Ratigan’s laptop in December 2010, and immediately reported it to the diocese. The prosecutor said they were ‘‘alarming photos,’’ among them a series taken on a playground in which the photographer moves in closer until the final shots show girls’ genitalia through their clothing. Confronted with the photographs, Ratigan tried to commit suicide by leaving his motorcycle running in an enclosed garage. He left a note apologizing to the children and their families, but survived and was briefly hospitalized.
Finn sent Ratigan for a psychological examination, then assigned him to live in a convent and told him not to have contact with children. But despite the restrictions, Ratigan presided at a girl’s First Communion, and attended an Easter egg hunt and a child’s birthday party. Diocesan officials reported him to the police in May 2011, six months after they first learned of the photographs.
Finn and the diocese still face at least 25 civil suits stemming from Ratigan’s actions.
Ratigan pleaded guilty in August to federal child pornography charges, and is awaiting sentencing. He admitted that he took photographs over many years of girls he knew, who ranged in age from 2 to 9 years old.