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Bishop Robert Finn was found guilty on Thursday of failing to report suspected child abuse, becoming the highest-ranking US Catholic Church official convicted in clergy sex abuse scandals.
Jackson County Circuit Court Judge John Torrence issued the ruling in Kansas City, Missouri after Finn, 59, declined to fight the charges and instead agreed to a stipulated finding of facts in the case.
Finn will not serve jail time or pay a fine for the misdemeanor charge. He was instead placed on probation, which requires him to ensure the diocese trains staff and clergy to detect and report abuse, as well as create a $10 000 fund for counselling abuse victims.
The ruling comes weeks after Monsignor William Lynn was sentenced to up to six years in prison for covering up child sex abuse by priests in Philadelphia.
Lynn, a pastor and secretary of clergy for the archdiocese, was the highest-ranking US church official convicted of covering up child sex abuse allegations prior to Finn.
Torrence dismissed a second misdemeanor charge pending against Finn, as well as two other misdemeanor charges pending against the Diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph.
A leading victims advocacy group slammed the decision to fast-track the case and spare Finn more serious punishment.
“Only jail time would have made a real difference here and deterred future horrific cover-ups, anything less will not produce any meaningful reform,” said Barbara Dorris, outreach director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“The Catholic hierarchy is notoriously secretive. When they backslide again it will be hard to catch them, everyone involved must be hyper vigilant if kids are truly to be safe.”
Prosecutors, however, hailed the ruling as a “clear and ringing victory for the victims,” who they said were please with the outcome.
“They agreed that this result achieved two key things - a finding of guilt that helps protect children and continued anonymity for these young victims,” Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said.
“We can be assured now that if an allegation of child abuse comes to the attention of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, there will no hesitation to report it immediately to the proper authorities.”
Teachers at St Patrick's Catholic School had initially reported concerns about the delinquent priest, Father Shawn Ratigan, in May 2010.
Finn spoke to Ratigan about his concerns with the priest's “boundary issues” but did not pursue it further, even though a pair of girls' underwear were found in a planter in Ratigan's backyard.
A computer technician also discovered a picture of a little girl's vagina on Ratigan's laptop in December 2010.
Further investigation revealed hundreds of photos of young girls - many of them “upskirt” shots that appeared to have been taken while they were playing or sleeping, including some showing a girl's panties being slowly removed.
But instead of reporting the discovery to the police, parish officials consulted a lawyer. When the lawyer suggested the images were not child pornography, Finn sought help from a psychiatrist, who said Ratigan was not a risk to children.
A parish priest eventually reported the case to police in May 2011. - Sapa-AFP