A few weeks ago, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, MO became the first U.S. bishop to be held accountable for the child abuse by priests. Though I regret the lateness of this post, I did not think that this event should go by without comment from our blog. In the New York Times, John Eligon and Laurie Goodstein reported:

“The case began when the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, a charismatic parish priest who had previously attracted attention for inappropriate behavior with children, took his laptop computer in for repairs in December 2010. A technician immediately told church officials that the laptop contained what appeared to be pornographic photographs of young girls’ genitals, naked and clothed.

Father Ratigan attempted suicide, survived and was sent for treatment. Bishop Finn reassigned him to live in a convent and ordered him stay away from children. But Father Ratigan continued to attend church events and take lewd pictures of girls for five more months, until church officials reported him in May 2011, without Bishop Finn’s approval. The bishop was found guilty on the charge relating only to that time period.”

According to the same article, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests was happy to finally see a conviction of a bishop, but remains convinced that only jail time will bring about lasting change.

Perhaps many Catholics see the group’s demands as extreme, especially since significant attempts to correct the problem have been made in recent years. However, as Frank Bruni points out, “the case of Father Ratigan postdates all of that — by many, many years. It suggests the tenacity of willful ignorance and deliberate evasion, even when the price is nothing less than the ravaged psyches of vulnerable children.” It’s not over, not by a long shot.

I used to have reservations about SNAP’s push for criminal punishment. I hoped that training, awareness, rules, and cultural change would stop most abuse from occurring in the first place. But for many years now, David Clohessy, director of SNAP, has been speaking in my sexual ethics class at St. Louis University. Each year, in spite of busy schedules, either he or another member has graciously agreed to come and talk to me and my students.

I will always remember the first time he told his own story of being victimized by a priest when he was eleven years old. One of my sons was eleven at the time. As I listened to David telling his story, I was drawn into this issue in a new way. Over the years, as I listened to the stories of so many others who tried without success to work for justice through church channels, I became convinced that more had to be done. And while the “more” included teaching children to be safe and training adults to recognize abuse and abusers, it must also include pushing for legal sanctions.

Peter Steinfels recently told an amazing story about his attempt, as a teenager, to “out” a camp counselor who was abusing young boys. Years after the counselor was removed from the camp, Steinfels learned that the man had gone on to abuse others. He thought he had done the right thing and in the context of the times, that was a legitimate thing to think. We know better now, says Steinfels.

Sometimes personal and communal efforts are necessary but insufficient.  This, sadly, is one of them.