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National Catholic Reporter Owes Bishop Finn an Apology

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Kansas City

According to the Vatican II document Inter Mirifica (Decree on the Media of Social Communications), media organizations “should see to it that communications or presentations concerning religious matters are entrusted to worthy and experienced hands and are carried out with fitting reverence” (IM 11).

This, apparently, would be news to writer Phyllis Zagano and her editors at the National Catholic Reporter.

In any event, all concerned owe Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph an apology for a June 8th article in which his good name and reputation were besmirched with an irreverence that borders on the calumnious.

In the article, Zagano asserted moral equivalence between His Excellency and the likes of an adulterer (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a serial philanderer (Anthony Weiner), and a pair of alleged sex offenders (Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Mahmoud Abdel-Salam Omar) of recent headlines.

Bishop Finn’s crime? As His Excellency has publically and with great humility maintained, failing to act as decisively as he may have in addressing suspicions about a pastor who exhibited signs of an unhealthy attraction toward school children. This, as hindsight recently made clear when the priest was eventually discovered to be in possession of child pornography at which point he was promptly arrested.

For Zagano, who appears rather prone to imagining misogynistic boogey men lurking behind every pillar in the halls of ecclesial power, the common thread that binds Bishop Finn to the aforementioned list of newsworthy cads is all too obvious — “testosterone.”

Revealing far more about herself than the moral character of Bishop Finn, Zagano puts what appears to be a convoluted feminist worldview on display for all to see as she rhetorically asks, “How did we end up with a diocesan bishop who ignores the report of near-criminal behavior from a woman Catholic school principal?”

Yes, you read that correctly. Zagano is actually suggesting that the very same report issued from a male principal may have nipped this thing in the bud — a laughable proposition at best. 

Her blatant misrepresentation of the facts aside (as Bishop Finn did not by any reasonable measure “ignore” the –reported behavior), one cannot help but feel embarrassment for Zagano — an Adjunct Professor of Religion at Hofstra University — for making such a small-minded suggestion in a public forum.

Seriously, it reminds me of a time when a drunken coworker made a spectacle of himself at a swanky company function. It was his own darn fault, of course, but the humiliation was so tangible that everyone could feel it. 

Now, I don’t know Phyllis Zagano any more personally than she knows Bishop Finn, but it seems pretty obvious to me just from a cursory review of the broader body of her writing that she’s no more “the enemy” than my old coworker was the typical irresponsible drunkard.  That said there’s no denying that both of them stepped way out of line.

In the present case, Zagano’s condescending and disrespectful treatment of Bishop Finn is nothing short of reprehensible. 

To make matters worse, it seems rather obvious that the wounds being inflicting upon this good and humble shepherd are as little more to the perpetrator than an acceptable amount of collateral damage in a battle to score totally unrelated pet ideological points.

Dizzying though it may be, by following Zagano’s meandering train of thought it becomes rather clear – the issue for her has nothing whatsoever to do with protecting children from creeps; it’s really all about seizing an opportunity to belittle “conservative” churchmen in furtherance of favored causes.  

For example, while desperately seeking to give the appearance of credible research in support of her unfounded character assassination-of-convenience, Zagano informs her readers that Bishop Finn was ordained to the episcopate by… hold on to your seat now… Cardinal Raymond Burke, and horror of horrors, Bishop Finn “appears to be his protégé!”

The Third Secret of Fatima it’s not, I know, but the strategy itself isn’t terribly difficult to comprehend as invoking the name of Cardinal Burke in the Reporter is like whispering “Halliburton” at a White House dinner party these days — it’s low hanging fruit for the progressive appetite.

Zagano then throws another shovel load of excrement against the Cathedral wall by pointing to Bishop Finn’s commitment to “a highly traditional form of religious life,” serving as he does as President of the Institute for Religious Life (IRL).

I challenge Zagano or anyone else to find even one blameworthy (never mind relevant) proposition coming forth from the IRL at His Excellency’s direction. It simply isn’t there.

Undaunted, however, Zagano pontificates, “The internal political bent of Finn seems to coincide with that of other bishops who have either covered up scandal or vociferously criticized moderate-to-liberal American women religious, or both.”

One notices that for Phyllis Zagano, who can’t seem to think her way out of the slog of perpetual female victimhood, venerable Catholic tradition regarding the spiritual demands of consecrated life among women religious is nothing more than a matter of personal politics. More telling still, however, is her clumsy and embarrassingly unconvincing attempt to indict Bishop Finn by equivocating the covering up of scandal (something that no credible person has ever accused His Excellency of doing) and publically criticizing the shenanigans of “moderate-to-liberal” religious orders.

Like a gunman (ahem… make that, gunwoman) on a merry-go-round, Zagano then attempts to take aim at clerical celibacy.

Pointing to the fact that Bishop Finn entered minor seminary in junior high school, she imagines, “As a ‘lifer’ he probably didn’t sneak smokes behind the barn, forget his homework, or go to drive-in movies in a car with a generous back seat.”

Again, remind yourself of exactly whom Phyllis Zagano is speaking in this, a manner that is far more befitting a bunch of teenaged boys than a grown woman who wishes to be taken seriously on a matter of grave concern in the Catholic Church.

“An all-male environment from the age of twelve can ensure celibacy,” she declared, “but at what price?”

It can? I’m reasonably certain Rembert Weakland would disagree, but never mind that. The very suggestion that a rodeo in the back seat of daddy’s Buick somehow prepares one for the difficult task of governing a diocese is not just idiotic; it’s the height of irreverence and a sure sign that the Reporter entrusted this particular writing assignment to anything but “a worthy and experienced hand” (ibid).

“If the only way to get celibate clergy is to lock up twelve-year-olds until they are ordained, maybe the hierarchy should reconsider requiring priestly celibacy,” the Professor finally proposes as her idea of a plausible remedy to a problem she hardly even came close to articulating.

In the end, engaging Phyllis Zagano’s feeble arguments on their merit is like barrel fishing with a bazooka, and others have already done so well.

The bigger issue in my mind is the duty that is incumbent upon media organizations and their members, especially those who dare to fly a “Catholic” banner, in adhering to a reasonable standard of decency and reverence.

While Phyllis Zagano and her editors are free to make fools of themselves, depleting whatever dwindling supply of Catholic credibility they may have left in the process, it is not their purview to treat Bishop Finn and his good reputation as just so much expendable ammunition in whatever unrelated ideological battles they may choose to engage.

The advice that I gave to my drunken coworker way back when is just as applicable to Zagano and the Reporter today:

Clean yourself up, take responsibility for your mistakes, and apologize before it’s too late. What little dignity remains is long at stake.

[Author’s note: An abbreviate version of this column was initially published by Catholic News Agency on 6-23-2011.]

(© 2011 Louie Verrechio)

[CL Editor’s note: The Catholic Key (the diocesan paper there) gives a decent breakdown of events. The memo thatthe bishop did not ask to see is here.]


Author and speaker Louie Verrecchio has been a columnist for Catholic News Agency since April 2009. His work, which includes Year of Faith resources like the Harvesting the Fruit of Vatican II Faith Formation Series, has been endorsed by Cardinal George Pell of Sydney, Australia; Bishop Emeritus Patrick O’Donoghue of Lancaster, England; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, IA, USA and others. For more information please visit: www.harvestingthefruit.com.


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  • Mary Kochan

    IF we hadn’t gone through years and years of this, IF this was the first story ever to get into the papers, IF other bishops have not had their clocked cleaned on this… then, yeah, ok, leave it up to the monsignor… don’t get overly curious about exactly what is going on with the priest… Yes. That is understandable.

    But we have some context here don’t we? This context: THE ENTIRE SEX ABUSE SCANDAL THAT HAS BEEN GOING ON FOR YEARS AND YEARS!!!

    This involved, hello… CHILDREN! He is a BISHOP!

    Since the bishop knew about the existence of the memo and he did not personally gather all the information and investigate it himself, he is at fault as far as I am concerned.

    So the liberal “journalist” gets to slap the bishop around publicly in light of this egregious malfeasance. He volunteered for it in this case. He set himself up for it – the sadness is that he set all the rest of the Catholics up for it too.

    Again.

    Again.

    Again.

    When will they ever learn?

    • patrick_omalley

      They just don’t care. If they had done “What Jesus Would Do” when they knew about this in the 1960s, they would have

      – reported the pedophiles to the police
      – told the truth
      – found and helped the children

      Its really simple. Instead, they broke all of God’s laws and WJWD, by

      – silencing and intimidating the children
      – moving the pedophiles to new sites to rape more children
      – hiding the truth
      – lying about it
      – ignoring the children

      I have an honest question. What would Satan do? Assuming he’s not stupid enough to just set everyone on fire, he’d use that same plan. Move pedophiles around as much as you could. Fight the uprisings. Continue to try to get away with it. Convince the congregation that everyone who came forward was a liar and a money-grabber. Don’t take it seriously. Refuse to take definitive action to see if you could keep getting away with it.

      I’m sure no one likes that analysis, but no one can argue it either. Satan is a pretty smart guy. He’s got most of the Catholic community convinced that it’s not a big deal if their priests rape children, their bishops lie, and everyone ignores the victims.

      Why set everyone on fire if you can drop their standards that far?

  • Bishop Finn has already indicted himself far more effectively than we can by humbly taking responsibility for what appears quite obviously to be the failure of an underling. That said a recap of events is in order:

    The principal delivered a memo relaying concerns about the priest (Shawn Ratigan) to Vicar General Msgr. Murphy in May 2010. For whatever reason, he didn’t pass it along to the bishop. This was a failure that all recognize.

    Why Msgr. Murphy simply briefed Bishop Finn on the memo and the subsequent meeting that he had with the priest, we do not know. Someone should ask him. (And you can bet Bishop Finn has!) As far as anyone knows, no more red flags were raised until Dec. 2010 when disturbing images were found on Ratigan’s computer – at which point he was summarily banned from parish ministry.

    What we can say is that Bishop’s Finn’s well-earned good reputation for leadership, holiness and humility is such that it is reasonable to imagine that the briefing he received concerning the memo was less than alarming. Why? Ask Msgr. Murphy.

    Given the FACT that Msgr. Murphy didn’t think the concerns in the memo were grave enough to merit going directly to the bishop for whom he worked, we can only imagine that his briefing likewise failed to covey the seriousness of its contents.

    As it is now, Bishop Finn is standing up and taking full responsibility. It is right that he does – he’s the shepherd, but let’s be clear – we do not know what Msgr. Murphy told Bishop Finn. Let’s not presume to know that Bishop Finn was given enough information about the outrageous conduct described in the memo that he should have been outraged. The simple truth is, we don’t know this to be the case.

    If we simply take the facts as we do know them, and extend to Bishop Finn the good will to accept his statements in the matter as genuine (and we have no reason whatsoever to do otherwise) it seems pretty obvious that Msgr. Murphy’s mishandling of the memo is really at issue here.

    In the end, progressives are far less interested in the case itself than in pillorying any and every bishop they perceive to be a threat against their agenda. That’s what this article is really about.

    Yes, all of us are weary of these kinds of stories, but let’s not join the progressives in devouring one of the brighter lights among the American episcopate as a result.

    • patrick_omalley

      Don’t distract from the point. This has nothing to do with “progressives pillorying any and every bishop they perceive to be a threat against their agenda”.

      This has to do with the Catholic church having a 60+ year history of child sex abuse, lying and cover ups, and ignoring the victims.

      All of those things are against everything the Catholic religion stands for, and are against the basic tenets of humanity. Anyone who defends them ought to have their head and their heart examined.

      The priests and bishops in the Catholic church don’t practice the religion. No priests or bishops stand up against their practices. They all fall in line. They don’t act like Jesus, and they don’t follow God’s laws.

      This isn’t complicated. God didn’t ask you to be a genius. He just asked you to follow some simpe rules:

      – don’t rape children
      – don’t lie about it
      – don’t ignore the victims
      – don’t tolerate anyone who does any of the above
      – don’t you dare tolerate any of it in God’s church

      THAT’s what this is about.

      • Cyril Carroll

        I agree with your comments Mr. O’Malley, you are absolutely correct with your analysis of how the Bishops have failed to follow Jesus rules. Until those bishops who obstructed justice in this country are brought before courts to be tried, this scandal will continue to fester.

  • Mary Kochan

    Three words: complaint – priest – children

    Even if those were the only three words he got about this entire thing – even if he got them as a rumor, even if they were vaguely and remotely strung together in the same conversation – and he had to have GOTTEN AT LEAST THOSE THREE WORDS – he should have been proactively defensive enough of the Church, or the children, or his own darn job to take the matter fully personally in hand. Context, context, context.

    Something is obviously wrong with the monsignor; how hard is that to figure out? Just read the memo that he read. It didn’t faze him. He was able to deliver (we are given to understand) such a low key reprisal of it to the bishop that no red flags were raised. The memo did not alarm the monsignor. Only someone with a serious mental and/or moral deficiency could read that memo without alarm.

    I’m sorry, the very existence of a memo — the very fact that the principal of a Catholic school was moved to write a memo regarding the conduct of a priest with children — regardless of anyone even seeing the contents of the memo (which will make your head explode, I promise) was enough to set off the alarm bells. I think the principal was derelict as well because he did not get the bishop on the phone – too busy trying to be an institutional good guy and “go through channels”. But at least he tried – his memo was very, very thorough, so he should get credit for giving a very complete picture of the trouble. I would fault him for not being more adamant about raising the alarm and demanding to speak to the bishop.

    But I reiterate — the fact that a memo existed should have demanded the immediate personal attention of the bishop. Period!

    Is the monsignor assigned to some remote monastery for life yet? No? See this is why so many think “the Church just doesn’t get it”.

    Bishop Finn enabled the mishandling of the memo. The bishop’s stafff did not get the message (because the bishop never communicated it) that they were absolutely to bring to him completely and without any delay or whitewashing ANY complaint regarding any priest that involved children. There is no excuse for this in this day and age after everything that has happened.

    There isn’t anything we can do about it. This has nothing to do with destroying the bishop. We have no power to destroy him even if we wanted to — and we shouldn’t want to before God. He isn’t going anywhere. There is no accountablility with any of them. It’s always “I’m sorry.” Sure, I believe he’s sorry.

    The next one will be sorry too.

    And the one after that.

  • patrick_omalley

    Louie Verrecchio is just like the Catholic bishops – soft on child sex abuse. He says, “Bishop Finn has already indicted himself far more effectively than we can by humbly taking responsibility”.

    Wrong. We can indict him more effectively by indicting him, then by sending him to jail for reckless child endangerment and aiding and abetting a pedophile. We can assemble a Grand Jury to investigate the rest of the things that Bishop Finn overlooked. We already know that Finn overlooked a memo from a school principal about a priest taking “up skirt” photos of children and asking the to get change out of his pockets. Let’s find out what else he is hiding.

    When they did a Grand Jury investigation in Philadelphia, they found horrific crimes. Read the first 6 pages at http://bit.ly/jyfXni and see what perverts these pedophile priests are, and what the leadership did to cover it up.

    Sorry, Louie, this is child sex abuse, not child’s play. We aren’t sending Bisop Finn to bed without dinner. We’re sending him to jail, and doing a Grand Jury investigation. You may think the crimes in Kansas City and Philadelphia and all over the United States are no big deal, but child rape by Catholic priests and the cover up by their bishops has ruined the lives of thousands of children, and we aren’t letting any more happen because you think he’s indicted himself enough.

    Step aside. Let the adults protect the children.

  • Mary Kochan

    Out of fairness to the author, I think the suggestion that he is soft on child abuse is really over the top. Let’s be clear on what his column is about. It is about NCReporter’s treatment of the story. It’s about Phyllis Zagano’s outrageous allegations of moral equivalence between Bishop Finn and Anthony Weiner, et al. It’s about the idiotic implication that celibacy and misogyny contributed to this situation.

    Let’s save at least some of our outrage for this “kick all Catholics while one is down” approach to reporting.

    • patrick_omalley

      Everyone is entitled to their opinion.

      The author believes that if a Bishop ignores a memo from a school principal about a known pedophile, “taking responsibility” is a valid punishment. I think that’s soft on child abuse, and I think the Catholic church has been reprehensible and sinfully soft on child abuse.

      Read the first 6 pages read of the Philadelphia Grand Jury Report at http://bit.ly/jyfXni to see the truth about how depraved these pedophile priests are and how the church intentionally hid them.

      Read those 6 pages and tell me “taking responsibility” is enough of a punishment. Prison isn’t enough of a punishment, but it’s all we have.

  • We are all guilty for putting men of the cloth on a pedestal they don’t deserve and where they were not meant to be–ever.

    Do you want to see it like God sees it? Just imagine yourself being one of those pervs and having to be in front of the Final Judge.

    “So, Joe… entertaining yourself with the kids? I mean, the ones that survived the abortion-fest in that society I gave you to shepherd… tsk, tsk, tsk…”

    And then deep unfathomable darkness.

    • patrick_omalley

      The deep unfathomable darkness for the priest is unquestioned.

      – What about the bishops that moved them and didn’t warn new children?
      – What about the bishops that lied about it and lie about it today?
      – What about the priests that never spoke up about it?
      – What about the congregation that tolerated it, or said that the victims of child rape were lying when they came forward?
      – What about a bishop that knows about a pedophile from a school principal’s memo and ignores it, even after decades of public church embarrassment for doing exactly that?

  • Mary Kochan

    I don’t think God is quite as mechanical in His justice as all that. That priest probably was one of those children once. His soul was likely twisted at a young age, too.

    But obviously he should never have been ordained a priest. He decorated his rectory with stuffed animals for Pete’s sake! The very first time somebody saw that, he should have been removed for his own good AND that of the kids.

  • patrick_omalley

    How about this idea for God’s justice:

    – you rape a child on earth, you are continually raped in the afterlife
    – you knowingly move child rapists, you have to re-live their lives for eternity
    – you accuse victims of lying or money-grabbing, you have to re-live their lives for eternity, and every time you ask God when you can go to heaven, He says you’re lying and doing it for the money, and you just don’t understand
    – you stand by passively and let it happen, you have to watch their lives for eternity, and when you beg God for forgiveness, He ignores you passively

  • Mary Kochan

    Man proposes; God disposes.

    This line of discussion is not edifying so let’s put an end to it. It also is not really pertninent to the author’s arguement, which was a good take down of the Phyllis Zagano piece.

  • Mary, I am sorry if my comment was a bit draconian. It is not good to assume that the mercy of God will cover anything. We know He is just and merciful but we have our obligations too. It is true that some children are twisted by adults and they have to deal with that for life. But it is also true that the choice between good and evil acts has nothing to do with that Freudian determinism prevalent in the courts of law these days. The horrible possibility of eternal damnation is something that should scare us half way to Heaven or at least help us do good instead of bad things.

    In my comment I meant to say that we put fallible men on a pedestal so high that they can only fall from there. Yes there were some that were indifferent, others we complicit, and yet others were simply confused by the horrific nature of the evils perpetrated. Remember I was in Boston at the time the scandal broke and I was just a new convert.

    Some of my friends wondered if I had gone mad. What a moment to enter the Church. Oh, well! There is always something!

    The Catholic male (priest or layman) is a suspicious character these days. We all have to carry that cross and that sometimes makes us react with anger to the moral damage that was placed upon our shoulders by those who should have known better.

  • I read the memo. If there’s any good news, it’s that the training we give to lay teachers and staff – what we in my Diocese call “Safe Environment” training – appears to be working. The teachers all know what to look for and how to respond, and the principal was able to be articulate about her concerns.

    I blame the Bishop first, for not seeing the fire where there’s smoke; the Vicar second, for apparently pocketing the memo and sanitizing its contents for the Bishop; and the Principal third, for not following up with her concerns directly with the Bishop.

    I am glad that the priest was arrested for possession of child pornography – children are harmed by pornography, but he never escalated to harming his charges at the parish. We can at least thank God for that.

    • patrick_omalley

      You have no idea if Ratigan harmed his charges at the parish. Part of the evil of clerical child sex abuse is that priests invariably tell children that they will go to hell if they tell anyone.

      Read the first 6 pages of the Phil Grand Jury report at http://bit.ly/jyfXni to see.

  • Mary Kochan

    Apparently this is not the first such case the bishop has mishandled: http://www.bishop-accountability.org/news2007/03_04/2007_03_28_Abbott_CatholicActivist.htm