KC diocese sued over priest’s photos of child

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Three years after agreeing to a $10 million settlement with 47 people who said they were molested by clergy, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is facing a federal lawsuit claiming it closed its eyes to inappropriate actions of a priest who took hundreds of pictures of young girls in compromising positions.

Father Shawn Ratigan, 45, remains behind bars on $200,000 bond after being arrested May 18 on three counts of possessing child pornography. He has pleaded not guilty in Clay County Circuit Court.

A federal lawsuit filed Thursday in Kansas City on behalf of a young parishioner accuses Ratigan of taking pornographic pictures of her from 2006 to 2010. It also claims the diocese and Bishop Robert Finn tried to cover up the priest’s crimes to save the church’s reputation.

“They failed to not only protect the children, they allowed this predator to have access to children with sufficient knowledge to not only have him removed, but reported,” said Jeff Anderson, one of the attorneys in the federal lawsuit.

The suit claims the diocese received complaints about Ratigan as early as 2006 but did nothing about it. At the time of those complaints, top diocese officials were in the midst of mediation with plaintiffs that resulted in the $10 million settlement in 2008.

As part of that agreement, the diocese vowed to train its priests on sexual abuse and report any suspicions that children were being placed in danger.

“The nonmonetary agreements were the most significant factor for a number of (the plaintiffs) settling,” said attorney Rebecca Randles, whose firm has filed 50 lawsuits against the diocese claiming sexual abuse by priests. “The diocese dropped the ball.”

The diocese issued a statement Thursday saying it was deeply concerned for the well-being of the girl in the lawsuit and urging anyone with information about Ratigan’s actions to file a confidential report with police.

In a memo dated May 19, 2010, St. Patrick School Principal Julie Hess wrote that several people had complained that Ratigan was taking compromising pictures of young children and that he allowed them to sit on his lap and reach into his pocket for candy. It also said the mother of a young Brownie Girl Scout had found a pair of girl’s panties in a planter in the backyard of Ratigan’s home.

Vicar General Robert Murphy received the letter, spoke with Ratigan about setting boundaries with children, then gave Finn a summary of the letter and his meeting with the priest. The matter didn’t seem to gain much traction until Dec. 16, when a computer technician working on Ratigan’s laptop found multiple images of girls under 12 years old, with the focus on their privates. Most were fully clothed, but one was nude, according to a probable cause statement.

The technician turned the computer over to the diocese, pointing out the images, and church officials confronted Ratigan.

The next day, the priest failed to show up for 8:30 a.m. Mass and was found in his garage, his motorcycle running and a suicide note apologizing for any harm he caused to the church, the children and their families.

“In the week or so after this, Shawn Ratigan survived his suicide attempt and became conscious,” Finn wrote last month in a statement released to the media. “He went from the medical center to a psychiatric unit until it seemed that the risk of another suicide attempt was minimized.”

Finn said he sent Ratigan out of state for more psychiatric evaluation, and when he returned to Missouri the priest was sent to the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Eucharist, where he would be away from children and say Mass for the sisters.

The diocese said a police officer and legal counsel both said the photos on Ratigan’s computer were very troubling, but didn’t meet the standard for child porn. In March, the diocese — which had made a copy of the questionable images — returned the computer to Ratigan’s family, who destroyed it.

Finn said the diocese received reports that Ratigan had attended a St. Patrick’s Day parade and a child’s birthday party at the invitation of the child’s parents, in violation of orders from the diocese that he stay away from children.

The bishop said Ratigan continued to disregard the requirements, so Murphy contacted police and turned over copies of the photos from Ratigan’s computer on May 12.

The photos were sent to the Police Department’s Cyber Crimes Against Children unit, and later police confiscated computers, cameras, a hard drive and other equipment family members had removed from Ratigan’s apartment after his suicide attempt.

Additional images — including more than a dozen nude photos of a 3- to 4-year-old girl found on a CD in a one-hour photo envelope dated April 2004 — were discovered and criminal child porn charges soon followed.

“During the last two weeks, I have learned facts that I had not previously known,” Finn write in a letter to parishioners last week. “As Bishop, I owe it to people to say, ‘Things must change.’ I must also acknowledge my own failings. Yesterday evening, I read, for the first time, the memorandum prepared in May 2010 by our principal at St. Patrick School.”

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