The Vatican’s recent announcement that Pope Francis has accepted the resignation of Bishop Robert Finn, of the diocese of Kansas City–St. Joseph, has given relief and new hope to victims of sexual abuse in the Church.
Technically, the Pope didn’t directly “remove” Finn, as the media has widely reported; rather, the bishop formally offered his resignation in accordance with canon 401, paragraph 2, of the Code of Canon Law, which reads: “A diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.” But there is no mystery as to why Finn resigned, several years after resisting petitions for him to do so.
Finn is the only American bishop ever to be convicted of a criminal charge for failing to report suspected child abuse. His September 2012 conviction, on a misdemeanor charge, came about because Finn waited several months before telling police of his knowledge that one of his priests, Fr. Shawn Ratigan, had a computer with explicit images of young girls on it. Ratigan later pled guilty to five federal counts, and was sentenced to fifty years in prison. Bishop Finn was himself sentenced to two years probation, and the diocese was hit with an additional $1.1 million fine, when an arbitrator ruled Finn’s diocese had broken an earlier agreement.
Finn’s resignation comes after the completion of a Vatican investigation of him and his diocese, initiated by Pope Francis, last year. The Pope’s action has confounded both defenders of Bishop Finn, as well as skeptics of Francis’s promise to combat abuse in the Church.
After the allegations against Bishop Finn’s surfaced, a number of conservative Catholics rallied to his defense, arguing that he was being unjustly persecuted, not least because he was “orthodox.” But it is a strange notion of orthodoxy which defends a bishop who—however strong he may be upholding Catholic doctrine—shamefully covers up child abuse. As Rocco Palmo notes, “possession of child porn by a cleric now falls under the canonical crimes of sex abuse and, on discovery, must be reported by a bishop to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.” These misguided efforts to defend a compromised bishop have now ended in humiliation—for both Finn and his supporters.
On the same token, after Pope Francis announced the formation of his Commission to combat sexual abuse, certain critics expressed cynicism, and even predicted failure. One headline in the liberal National Catholic Reporter read: “Pope’s New Abuse Commission is Another Promise Waiting to be Broken.”
But in fact, as a result of Bishop Finn’s resignation, and other actions taken by the Pope’s Commission, led by Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, the Commission has a renewed sense of hope, as it works closely with Francis to advance bishop accountability, with Bishop Finn’s resignation representing a major step forward. Commission member Marie Collins—herself a victim of abuse—has called these developments “good news,” and further commented: “Bishop Finn has resigned. Things are moving slowly as I have said many times, but they are moving in the right direction.” Organizations for abuse victims are also encouraged, even as they stress that much more needs to be done.
Now that the Bishop Finn situation has been resolved, Pope Francis would do well to turn his attention to another crisis, and request the immediate resignation of Bishop Juan Barros, of the Diocese of Osorno, Chile. Last January, Pope Francis—in one of his most unfortunate moves—appointed Barros as Bishop there. Barros was a close associate of Chile’s most notorious priest-abuser, Fr. Fernando Karadima—even though three of Karadima’s victims, who were found credible by the Vatican, as well as an independent judge, have stated that Barros witnessed the abuse, and covered it up. Barros denies any wrongdoing, but the evidence against him is more than enough for many Catholics to appeal for his removal.
Since Barros’s installation last March, the Osorno diocese has been in a state of upheaval, with protests widening and divisions deepening. Barros has had “to sneak out of back exits, call on riot police to shepherd him from the city’s cathedral and coordinate movements with bodyguards and police canine units.”
This is the very antithesis of what Francis regards as a model priest or bishop—being trusted by the faithful, and staying close to his flock. The idea that Barros can be an effective bishop in Osorno has long since passed.
Pope Francis has done a considerable amount to fight child abuse within the Church, and the Vatican has followed his lead: the L’Osservatore Romano recently published a serious and substantial review of Dawn Eden’s book, My Peace I Give You, highlighting how the sacraments and saints can help heal the physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma that sexual abuse inflicts.
Now, to further secure his leadership on this issue, Francis needs to take decisive measures against Bishop Barros—and every other credibly accused Catholic priest or prelate—and prove the Holy See’s policy of accountability is one of strength and consistency, not marred by any gaps.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.