Pope Francis accepted the resignation this week of Bishop Robert W. Finn as head of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri, heeding pleas from parishioners and priests that the bishop had lost the credibility to lead after being convicted three years ago of failing to report a priest who took pornographic pictures of local girls.
It was the first time that Francis had taken action against an American bishop who neglected to protect children from pedophiles in the priesthood. Although the Vatican did not state why Finn resigned, the circumstances were clear-cut because Finn had received international notoriety as the first Roman Catholic prelate ever criminally convicted of shielding an accused priest.
Now Francis faces a much tougher call: whether he will take concrete steps to keep bishops worldwide accountable for protecting the children in their flocks from sexual abuse by clerics and church workers.
In the long history of the abuse scandal, the Vatican says it has defrocked more than 850 priests and penalized at least 2,500 more, but the matter of discipline for bishops has remained the great unfinished piece of business and the pressure to act is only growing.
In just the last month, Francis has faced protests from Catholics in Chile over his decision to install Bishop Juan Barros in the diocese of Osorno despite claims that the bishop witnessed abuse years ago and did nothing.
And on Tuesday, Marie Collins, a member of the Vatican’s special commission on clergy, which Francis appointed to advise him on handling sexual abuse, said that the group had presented him with a plan for instituting standards and procedures to keep those in the hierarchy accountable.
“The commission has put forward a proposal to the Holy Father to advance bishop accountability, not just of bishops, but of all church leadership,” said Collins, an Irish survivor of abuse.
She added that the proposal is supported by the entire commission, which includes priests and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston, who also serves on a separate cardinals’ advisory board to the pope. But she declined to provide details.
“It’s with the Holy Father, so it’s basically up to him now what he decides on that proposal,” she said. “We await his response.”
Collins also described the resignation of Finn as “good news” that “has taken too long, obviously, but is the way that anyone, I think, who is concerned about child protection wants to see things go.”
Parishioners and priests in Finn’s diocese had been petitioning the Vatican for three years to remove him. In September 2014, the pope sent a Canadian archbishop to Missouri to investigate, and several local Catholics and priests said afterward that the archbishop had asked them whether they felt that Finn had lost the confidence of the faithful. Speculation that Finn would be removed grew when he was absent last week for a confirmation, and was then spotted in Rome.
Such a resignation is extremely rare when a bishop is not ill or close to the retirement age of 75. Finn is 62 and has served in his diocese just short of 10 years.
The Vatican announced the resignation in a brief note in its daily news bulletin Tuesday, and did not give a reason. But the Vatican cited a provision in church law under which a bishop is “earnestly requested” to resign because of ill health or “some other grave cause.”
In a statement released by the diocese, Finn said, “It has been an honor and joy for me to serve here among so many good people of faith.”
Francis appointed Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, who leads the archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas, to administer Finn’s former diocese but did not name a successor.
Finn was convicted in 2012 on a misdemeanor charge involving the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, a charismatic parish priest who Finn had been warned was behaving inappropriately with children. When Ratigan took his laptop computer in for repairs in December 2010, a technician immediately told church officials that the laptop contained what appeared to be sexually explicit photographs of young girls.
After Ratigan attempted suicide and was sent for treatment, Finn reassigned him to live in a convent and ordered him to stay away from children. But Ratigan continued to attend church events and take lewd pictures of girls for five more months, until church officials reported him to police in May 2011, without Finn’s approval.
The bishop was convicted after a bench trial, and sentenced to serve two years court-supervised probation.
Jeff Weis, a parishioner who helped to lead the petition campaign pushing for Finn’s removal, said in a statement, that with the resignation, “the prayers of this hurt community have been answered.” But he added: “The damage done is immeasurable.”