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 Day 19

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The Vatican's Convent Problem

Get Thee to a Nunnery!

by CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI

Get thee to a nunnery.

— Shakespeare, Hamlet

The Lord works in mysterious ways.  So does the Catholic Church and it is probably as confusing for the nuns as it is for the casual observer.  On the one hand nuns are in bad odor in the Vatican and are being investigated by a bunch of men.  On the other hand the Vatican seems to view them as correctional institutions when such institutions are needed.  Although the events described occurred some time ago, the conviction of Bishop Robert W. Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph on one misdemeanor count and the resulting schism in the diocese brings it to mind again.

In April the Vatican began cracking down on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), an organization representing about 80 per cent of the nuns in the United States.  The Vatican’s “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an organization comprising only men, said that LCWR has focused its efforts on serving the poor and disenfranchised, while remaining virtually silent on issues the church considers great societal evils: abortion and same-sex marriage.”  One of the leaders of the move to investigate the LCWR was Cardinal Bernard Law who had actually spent some time with one group of nuns known as the Sisters of Mercy of Alma following his resignation in disgrace as Archbishop of Boston.

Cardinal Law was Archbishop of Boston from 1984 to 2002 during which time many priests engaged in inappropriate conduct with children.  The Archbishop was aware of many instances of the conduct and said that when a priest was accused of a sexual offense it was his practice to consult with psychiatrists, clinicians and therapists in residential treatment centers to determine whether the priests accused of sexually abusing children should return to the pulpit.  Reporting the criminal conduct of priests to the civil authorities was not something that occurred to Archbishop Law.  In reporting on the sex abuse scandal the Massachusetts attorney general said that “the Archdiocese has shown an institutional reluctance to adequately address the problem and, in fact, made choices that allowed the abuse to continue.”  The attorney general observed that since priests were not required to report sexual abuse until 2002 (when the law that required reporting was enacted)  Cardinal Law had broken no laws.

In order for Cardinal Law to contemplate the error of his ways in tolerating years of sexual abuse of children by his minions, he went to live among women, serving as the chaplain to the Sisters of Mercy of Alma, a post he held for two years before moving to Rome where the Pope rewarded him by making him the archpriest of St. Mary Major Basilica, a post he left in 2011.   Archbishop Law was not the only prelate who went to live among women in order to contemplate the error of his  ways involving sex.  The most recent is the Reverend Shawn Ratigan.  His transgressions were recently the focus of news stories not as a result of what he had done but as a result of what his superior, Bishop Finn of Kansas City,  had not done.

In 2010 Bishop Finn learned that the Reverend  Ratigan, in addition to his priestly duties, was an amateur  photographer and had on his computer  hundreds of pornographic pictures of young girls that he had taken in his capacity as  photographer rather than  priest.  Although Bishop Finn knew of the priest’s photographic pursuits, he did not share his knowledge with the civil authorities.  The authorities only learned of them in 2011 when a church official, reportedly without the Bishop’s approval, went to the authorities.

Following the report the Bishop was charged by civil authorities with failing to report the abuse and the diocese spent close to $1.4 million dollars defending him and itself.  At the conclusion of the trial Bishop Finn  was convicted of a single misdemeanor offense of failing to report a pedophile priest.  As punishment he is serving two years of court-supervised probation.  The debate now ongoing in his diocese is whether or not he should resign and on that his diocese is divided and how it will come out is not known.

Although Bishop Finn did not report the abuse to civil authorities, the Bishop punished Father Ratigan by sending him to live at the Sisters of St. Francis Convent  where he could have the quiet needed to contemplate the error of his ways and, according to one lawsuit filed against him, the time to continue with his photographic hobby. When civil authorities learned of his conduct they did not think confinement to a nunnery was sufficient punishment for his transgressions. He was criminally charged and ultimately pled guilty to four counts of producing child pornography and one count of attempting to produce  child pornography. He faces life in prison when sentenced.  His sentence is not likely to be served at a convent.

Why anyone in a position of authority would think a convent the proper place to send a priestly pedophile with a penchant for young girls to be rehabilitated, one more tutored in things ecclesiastical than I, can explain.