Suffer the Children

By Frank Bruni (New York Times)
September 10, 2012

Just how flagrant does a pedophile need to be before the people around him contact the police? Just how far beyond seeming to force himself on a boy in a shower or loading up his laptop with photos of little girls’ crotches does he have to go?

In the first instance I’m referring to Jerry Sandusky, whom Penn State officials allowed to continue working with children even after they were told that something was seriously amiss. In the second I’m referring to the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, a Catholic priest in Missouri whose superiors acted no less despicably.

In May 2010, the principal of a parochial school next door to the parish where Father Ratigan served sent a memorandum to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, as Laurie Goodstein reported in The Times. It flagged his odd behavior, including his habit of instructing children to reach into his pockets for candy.

In December 2010, hundreds of troubling, furtively taken photographs were found on his laptop, according to court testimony given too long after that fact. One showed a toddler’s genitals.

In what jail or prison cell, you might ask, did Father Ratigan spend the first half of 2011? None.

After the photos were discovered, he attempted suicide, received counseling and was reassigned by Bishop Robert W. Finn, the head of the diocese, to a new post as a chaplain to an order of nuns. There he was allowed to celebrate Mass for youth groups and host an Easter egg hunt, and he was caught taking a photograph under the table, up the skirt of the daughter of parishioners who had invited him into their home.

In May 2011, a diocesan official finally told police about the extent of Father Ratigan’s cache of child pornography. He was convicted of possession of it last month. And last week Bishop Finn was convicted of failing to report him to law enforcement authorities, and got two years of probation.

He’s the first American bishop to be found criminally culpable for his inaction in the face of suspected child abuse. It was a long time coming. Over the last quarter-century there have been hundreds upon hundreds of cases of molestation by Catholic priests. And one of the galling leitmotifs of this crisis, which was the subject of a 1993 book that a colleague and I wrote, has been church leaders’ refusal to treat priests as criminals rather than abashed penitents and to let them be prosecuted in ways that might keep them away from kids.

But I’m less interested in the grim milestone of Bishop Finn’s conviction than in the crucial lessons his story reiterates.

One is that institutions have a potent impulse to avoid public scandal, and do an execrable job of policing themselves. To protect their reputations or simply to avoid conflict, they minimize even the most destructive behavior. They convince themselves that they can handle it on their own. And they persuade themselves that their mission, be it the inculcation of religious faith or the scoring of touchdowns, trumps the law’s mandates.

Another is that for all the lip service that we pay to the preciousness of children and the importance of their futures, they remain the most voiceless members of our society. Many don’t know or understand what their rights are; many don’t have the maturity or mettle to exercise them. They depend on the vigilance and good faith of adults, which is to say they depend, all too often, on a fiction.

And a third is that we’re as likely to turn away from sexual pathology as confront it. It confounds and discomfits us.

These problems transcend the Catholic Church. Penn State is in part the parable of an institution that didn’t want to be distracted or humiliated and traded away the welfare of children, a shortsighted calculation with long-term wreckage.

The Boy Scouts of America covered up sexual abuse in its ranks. A recent Los Angeles Times review of files dating from 1970 to 1991 identified more than 125 cases of alleged molestation by men whom the organization had previously had reason to suspect of abusive behavior. “In some cases,” The Times noted, “officials failed to document reports of abuse in the first place.” In others, it failed to involve the police.

Over the last two decades the Catholic Church has spelled out stricter policies, including the prompt notification of law enforcement officials. And its defenders have complained that newly revealed instances of wrongdoing are usually old cases that predated better awareness of child sexual abuse, better education about it and a toughened resolve.

But 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.