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In the Matter of Bishop Robert Finn

Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph is a very good man, a man deeply committed to the Church. Therefore, he is not much loved by the so-called progressives and their first cousins, the dissidents.

Finn arrived in Kansas City-St. Joseph when it was what dissenters considered a model of New Church. The National Catholic Reporter wrote at the time, “Perhaps nowhere in America has the transition from a church focused on social engagement and lay empowerment to one more concerned with Catholic identity and evangelization been more dramatic, or in some ways more wrenching, than in the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese since the appointment of Bishop Robert Finn.”

Among the things that got their goat: he cut the Peace and Justice budget in half; directed the diocesan paper no longer to run columns by Richard P. McBrien; and announced he would personally review diocesan newspaper content. In addition, he set up a Respect Life office, gave a parish to the Latin Mass community, cancelled what the Reporter called, “The diocese’s nationally renowned lay formation programs,” and transferred its master’s program out of the diocese to Ave Maria University.

Opus Dei has formed Finn, so his understanding of the lay role is more along with lines of the documents of Vatican II rather than the “spirit of Vatican II.” The latter, it often seems, says that the lay role lies in taking over Church offices, which is to say a play for power within the institutional Church. The Church disagrees. Finn has said, “We have to understand where the power of the laity is. It’s in the family, the workplace, and the marketplace. That’s where the transformation of society has to happen.”

Faithful Catholics in Kansas City and around the country took heart at these developments. A bishop who takes the copier machines away from the dissenters, however, is a red flag in certain quarters. Finn has had a bull’s-eye on his back ever since. Sadly, he has recently given the opposition another arrow to shoot.

A year ago, the Chancery heard that a priest had questionable pictures of children on his computer, some said to be pornographic. It appears that Finn took too long to act on this information and that the accusations were not taken seriously enough. The local prosecutor indicted Finn for not acting more quickly. The dissidents danced a jig.

Almost immediately, however, a deal was announced between Finn and the prosecutor. Every month for five years, Finn will meet with prosecutors and report on allegations of abuse in his diocese. No doubt the dissenters were crushed when Finn was not prosecuted, that he was not dragged into the dock and then off to the hoosegow.

        Bishop Robert Finn

It did not have to be this way. The Church has made amazing progress in recent years in how to handle accusations of abuse – better than any other institution in American society. In fact, the Church as a whole is a model to the world on how to react to even the hint of trouble. Not all dioceses have gotten this message, however. One that has is the one where I live, the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia.

This is how a model process works. Say a phone call comes in to the Arlington Chancery about an accusation of abuse. The alleged abuse may be recent or decades old. No matter, the caller is immediately put in touch with trained counseling professionals who commit themselves to helping the person all the way through the process and offers victims all the help they need.

An investigation is initiated which includes the Chancellor of the Diocese and, if need be, a retired FBI agent. Except in cases that are impossibly vague, law enforcement is always immediately called. The priest – if he is alive and active – may be taken out of ministry at this point.

The Review Board will assess all new accusations and at several points be updated about the case. At some point, if all indications point to a need for action, the case is brought before the board for formal review. The priest is asked to speak to the board, as is the accuser. It is up to each of them whether they do so or not, but they cannot be forced.

After a thorough examination of what can be voluminous evidence, the board makes one decision and then one recommendation. The decision is simply, “is this accusation credible.” If it is not credible, the board passes this along to the bishop who will make his own decision.

The case may proceed or be dropped. If the board decides the accusation is credible, it may make a recommendation to the bishop on what should be done with the priest: either that he be laicized or that he spend his days in diocesan-supervised “prayer and penance,” far from any temptations. The bishop makes the final decision, but the priest may appeal to Rome.

This process is so serious in Arlington that the accuser may not even remember the name of the priest, what happened, or even the year. He may only have a vague recollection. No matter, the charge is still taken seriously and investigated as much as vague charges can be. And a vague charge is taken to the Review Board so that is will at least know the charge has been made.

Such a process has helped the Arlington Diocese, and our very good Bishop Paul Loverde to avoid the trauma in other places like, unfortunately now, Kansas City-St. Joseph.

It appears that local authorities have forced the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph to implement a process they should have already adopted long ago. The dissidents want Finn’s head. Let’s hope the Vatican decides otherwise. Finn made a mistake but he is too good a bishop for the Church to lose. No doubt he will never make this mistake again.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.