Last week in Kansas City-St. Joseph, the diocese lay review board was called to meet by the bishop to “discuss” recent events involving the sexual abuse of children. Too bad the board got wind of things a few years too late.
For those of you who don’t know, Fr. Sean Ratigan was arrested in late May for possession of hundreds of child sex abuse (child porn) images that he took of parish girls. According to a lawsuit filed last week, he uploaded and distributed those photos on the internet.
Bishop William Finn found out about the images in November 2010. Instead of calling the police, he made copies of the images (a federal crime, no?) and then gave Ratigan’s computer to Ratigan’s family, who destroyed it.
The diocese’s own document trail shows that the Bishop Finn was warned about Ratigan’s behavior at least a year ago, and possibly as long ago as 2007.
So when the Kansas City-St. Joesph diocese lay review board came together to meet just last week, one would think that they would demand some transparency, perhaps even publicly state that Finn be held accountable for his inaction and cover-up. Maybe call on him to turn over all files on Ratigan and other predators in the diocese. They should be angry, right?
Not so much.
Instead, the meeting resulted with the removal of a different priest who has been accused of abuse by at least three children and is the subject of a 2010 child sex abuse lawsuit. This was a priest who should have been removed a long, long time ago. Instead, he was allowed to remain in ministry a year after the lawsuit was filed.
What’s going on here?
Bishop Finn’s actions in these cases are akin to calling the fire department well after the house has already burned to the ground. But instead of demanding accountability, Kansas City-St. Joseph’s lay review board accepted an apology, quietly obeyed and thanked the bishop for the courtesy call.
An anomaly? Hardly. This case is spectacularly indicative of the uselessness and powerlessness of diocesan lay review boards. Acting as a bishop’s puppet show, they give the false air of transparency. Behind the scenes, it’s business as usual: cover-up, complicity and abuse.
I know this because as a former lay review board member in Orange, California, and a victim of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, I have seen it all firsthand.
Not an Isolated Case
Review boards across the country are coming under increased scrutiny as they are called to review cases well after the public and private damage has occurred, as well as for their refusal to be strong, critical and vocal advocates for the children they claim to serve.
In Gallup, NM, the board has been dormant for months, perhaps years. Although The Gallup Independent exposed dozens of secret settlements with victims, no board members have publicly come forward to demand information about abusers, secret files or settlements.
In Philadelphia, the board was thrown under the bus when a grand jury report found that 37 priests in ministry had allegations of abuse. The board knew nothing of many of the cases. Instead of demanding fundamental change, board members criticized Rigali, but praised the changes in the Archdiocese since 2005 and have justified their role in preventing abuse.
In Stockton, California, a judge has found that there is enough evidence for a civil sex abuse trial to proceed against Fr. Michael Kelly this summer. Stockton Bishop Stephen Blaire, however, has said that his review board has determined that Kelly is innocent and the priest remains in ministry. Wouldn’t any prudent board demand that Kelly be put on administrative leave until the trial was over?
In Fresno, a priest who was found by a civil jury to have molested a child remains in ministry in a parish. Bishop John T. Steinbock said that Eric Swearingen is innocent. Does his board agree? Why hasn’t the board publicly criticized the (recently deceased) bishop for this?
We will never know.
How Are These Boards Set Up?
The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People – a 2002 “reform” that has shown its flaws repeatedly during the past nine years – has carefully and meticulously ensured that lay review boards remain at the whim of the bishop.
Review boards are made up of former law enforcement officials, therapists, community members, child advocates and others who really care about the welfare of kids. Many serving on the boards are mandatory reporters. But as a “consultative board” to the bishop, the bishop may use them at his discretion. He doesn’t have to give them information. He is not mandated to tell them about allegations. He is not required to turn over secret personnel files. If the board recommends that a priest be removed, the bishop is not required to do so.
So why have a board at all?
The answer is simple: to provide a false veneer of legitimacy allowing bishops to continue business as usual.
But that can change.
The Fuse Has Been Lit
It’s only a matter of time before we see more and more cases like Ratigan’s and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The failures of the John Jay Report and annual diocesan audits are blatantly clear. The Catholic laity is seeing, yet again, that their children were intentionally put at risk of abuse, while the local lay review board assigned to protect kids remained silent.
Lay review boards are ineffective as long as their membership refuses to publicly demand transparency. As long as board members sit and wait obediently and silently for their bishop to do the right thing – or assume that they have all of the material necessary to make informed decisions – more children will be put at risk.
To become effective, the boards must understand their mission. The obligation of the boards is NOT to the bishop. The true obligation of every lay review board is to the CHILDREN of the diocese and the VICTIMS who were so horribly hurt. Once they actually understand their obligation and responsibility, suddenly, their requirement to speak out becomes painfully apparent.
I challenge every lay review board member to demand transparency and accountability from their bishop. I urge them to demand legal documents, depositions, evidence and secret personnel files for EVERY priest in the diocese. I challenge them to become vocal advocates for change.
Instead of being a liability and a puppet of their bishops, these boards must become proactive advocates for the children they claim to serve.
Until then, men like Ratigan and the bishops who cover-up for them will continue to destroy our children, just like they have in Kansas City-St. Joseph.