Kieran Tapsell: The Problem with Bishop Finn

Apr 28, 2015

On 21 April 2015, the Vatican announced that Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas, Missouri, had resigned. The announcement referred to the Code of Canon Law that states that a bishop who “has become less able to fulfil his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.” Bishop Finn seems to have been in good health, so the “grave cause” must have been that he had been convicted in September 2012 of failing to report to the police one of his priests, Fr Ratigan, who had been producing child pornography. Finn received a two year suspended sentence with probation, and despite calls for his resignation then, Finn refused to do so until now.

There is an extraordinary irony in this case, and it illustrates the mess that is created by canon law on the issue of child sex abuse, and which Pope Francis refuses to change, despite requests by United Nations Committees on two occasions to do so. Similar requests by Catholic Bishops Conferences from Ireland, Britain, the United States and Australia during the reigns of Popes John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI fell on deaf ears.

In 1996, the Irish Bishops informed the Vatican that they wanted to have mandatory reporting of all allegations of child sexual abuse to the police. The Vatican refused, saying it breached canon law, and it was “immoral” for a bishop to report even a paedophile priest to the police. In 1996, the Australian bishops (other than Archbishop Pell) adopted the Towards Healing protocol which required reporting where the civil law required it. In most cases that involved breaching the pontifical secret imposed by Pope Paul VI’s instruction Secreta Continere of 1974 that applied to all allegations of child sexual abuse by clergy. In 2001, the British Bishops adopted Lord Nolan’s report that recommended mandatory reporting. In 2002, the American’s sent to the Vatican the proposals for mandatory reporting. They were told that it conflicted with canon law. A delegation went to see Cardinal Ratzinger. A compromised was reached whereby bishops were required to obey domestic laws on reporting. There was a serious danger of bishops going to jail for breaching reporting laws in some American States. That requirement to obey domestic laws on reporting was eventually extended to the whole Church in April 2010. A month later, on 21 May 2010, Benedict XVI extended the pontifical secret to cover allegations against priests for possessing child pornography.

In December 2010, Bishop Finn became aware of the allegations against Ratigan.  Because Missouri law required reporting, Finn had not only breached the civil law, he had also breached canon law. He could thus be held accountable under both sets of laws.

If Missouri law did not require reporting (about half the American States don’t have comprehensive reporting laws), Bishop Finn had committed no crime under State law, and in December 2010, he would have been obeying canon law by not reporting because six months before, Benedict had imposed the pontifical secret on allegations of possession of child pornography.

All of this talk about making bishops accountable is so much hot air unless Pope Francis accedes to the demands of the United Nations and significant Catholic Bishops Conferences to have mandatory reporting whether or not there is a domestic law requiring it.

If legal systems are to be respected, they have to be coherent, and the only way that bishops can be made accountable for covering up child sexual abuse of any kind is by imposing mandatory reporting irrespective of whether there is a domestic law requiring it. Regrettably, Pope Francis does not seem to understand this. Bishops in those jurisdictions that have inadequate reporting laws (every State and Territory in Australia, other than New South Wales and Victoria) will not be able to report the vast majority of child sex abuse allegations against clergy because of the pontifical secret. If they are called to account by the Vatican for covering up such crimes, they have an unshakeable defence that they were obeying canon law.

On 26 July 1990, Dr Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, the late Catholic ethicist advised the Australian bishops: “For the sake of the Church, reasonable suspicion of a crime must be reported to the authorities. Any attempt to contain it within an in-house investigation and management risks bringing the Church into disrepute.” The Vatican is still insisting on “in-house investigation and management” in those countries without adequate reporting laws. The chickens have come home to roost, as Dr. Tonti-Filippini has predicted. This issue will continue to fester and the moral authority of the Church undermined until Pope Francis agrees to the demands of the United Nations Committees.

Kieran Tapsell is the author of Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican Secret and Child Sexual Abuse (ATF Press, 2014).  A review by Fr Tom Doyle has just been published in the National Catholic Reporter:

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