Coverage of recent indictment far from objective By Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
With everyone else who cares about the Catholic community in the Kansas City metropolitan area, I was saddened by the news announced by Jackson County prosecutor Jean Peters Baker that Bishop Robert Finn had been indicted by the grand jury on a misdemeanor charge of failure to report child abuse.
I found the Kansas City Star headline on Sunday more than ironic: “How Will KC Diocese Heal?” After months of The Star repeatedly finding reasons to rehash this story with always the same undertone calling for Bishop Finn’s resignation, The Star’s question seemed merely rhetorical.
The manufacturing and dissemination of child pornography is always a horrible crime. The horror is multiplied when the person responsible is a Catholic priest. Let me be clear again: There is no place in the priesthood for perpetrators of child sexual abuse or those who view, much less create, child pornography. I have told our priests on numerous occasions that our people have every right to expect that we live our lives in a manner consistent with our promise of celibate chastity. They certainly have a right to expect their children and adolescents will not be harmed by the clergy of their church.
I witness in our parishes a great love and admiration for our priests. This respect and affection for our priests is the fruit of lives of integrity and sacrificial service that Catholics have experienced for generations by the vast majority of priests.
I ask again for your prayers for Bishop Finn and for the priests and people of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. I have known Bishop Finn for many years, dating back to when both of us served as priests in St. Louis. I know him to be a man of integrity and with a passion for serving God and his people. I have spoken to him several times during the past months assuring him of my prayers and fraternal support.
I have not spoken with Bishop Finn in any detail about the indictment or the particulars of his legal defense. However, I have asked some in the legal profession to help me understand the nature of the charges made against Bishop Finn.
There are several aspects to this case that appear very unusual. First of all, I am told that it is quite unusual for a grand jury to be involved with an indictment of a misdemeanor. Secondly, as was apparent in The Star’s own reporting of the precedents for the indictment of Bishop Finn, none of these previous cases have resulted in convictions, except one case where the person was “convicted on a host of related charges.”
Bishop Finn has acknowledged mistakes made by him and others in diocesan leadership in this matter. He commissioned the former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves to review the policies, procedures, as well as their application. The Graves report identified some areas where the diocese had failed to follow their own procedures.
Some might ask: If the bishop has acknowledged mistakes, then why does he claim innocence to the charge made in the indictment? Again, from my layman’s understanding of the law, the difference is to plead guilty means to acknowledge “criminal intent.” In other words, the charge is more than an acknowledgement of a mistake of failing to report or even that there was negligence — the person should have known of the requirement to report. It is an admission that there was actually a conscious effort to deceive, to violate the law. From my knowledge of Bishop Finn, I find it impossible to believe this was the case.
Why, then would the prosecutor pursue such a charge? Why did the grand jury hand down an indictment? With regard to the second question, obviously the “level of proof” to bring an indictment is much less than to gain a conviction. If a prosecutor is sufficiently determined, usually they can convince the grand jury to indict.
In her press conference, prosecutor Jean Peters Baker stated: “This has nothing . . . to do with the Catholic faith.” I accept on face value the prosecutor’s claim that she is not motivated in bringing these charges by any animosity toward the Catholic Church. However, this does not preclude that the prosecutor, who must stand for election, was influenced by the steady drumbeat of negative press coverage and the advocacy of self-appointed victims’ rights groups who have called for Bishop Finn’s resignation. No prosecutor wants to be labeled by the local media or victims’ rights groups as soft on child abuse.
Another irony in this whole matter is the day after its two-day front page news coverage of Bishop Finn’s indictment, The Star published an editorial calling for the permanent disbarment of former Kansas attorney general and Johnson County Prosecutor Phill Kline. I do not have the knowledge, expertise or space to sort though the charges made about the investigatory methods employed by Kline or the countercharges that those who are now judging the former attorney general are politically motivated because they were appointed by politicians who received significant financial support from those Kline was investigating.
However, the charges made by Kline that the late George Tiller and Planned Parenthood failed to report statutory rape of minors who received abortions at their clinics have never been refuted. These serious charges have never been investigated with any vigor by the same newspaper whose most cherished mission appears not to be the protection of innocent children, born or unborn, but to lead the advocacy for the resignation of the local Catholic bishop.
I do not claim to be neutral or dispassionate in my view of the events that have unfolded in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese. My love for the Catholic Church and my friendship with Bishop Finn obviously influence how I perceive these events.
At the same time, the manner in which The Star has treated these events not only on its editorial page, but also in its news section, has not been dispassionate. The way in which “news stories” have been framed, those whom they have chosen to quote, the positioning of stories, the rehashing of old stories, and the overall editing have been influenced by an ideological point of view that, in my opinion, does have an animosity — if not to the Catholic Church, then at least to much of its moral teaching.
Ask yourself this question: Can you recall The Kansas City Star ever calling for the resignation of any other religious figure from their post within their church, synagogue or mosque? Think about it.