Bishop Robert Finn Star file photo FRED BLOCHER/Kansas City Star
Bishop Robert Finn Star file photo FRED BLOCHER/Kansas City Star

Local

Vatican examines KC Bishop Robert Finn’s leadership, diocese confirms

By MARK MORRIS

The Kansas City Star

September 29, 2014 03:27 PM

UPDATED September 29, 2014 07:59 PM

The Vatican dispatched a church official this month to Kansas City to examine the leadership of Catholic Bishop Robert Finn, a spokesman for the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese said Monday.

Jack Smith, communications director for the diocese, confirmed that a Canadian archbishop visited Kansas City last week to interview people about Finn’s leadership.

The visit by Ottawa, Ontario, Archbishop Terrence Prendergast came to light Monday afternoon in an online report by Joshua J. McElwee, National Catholic Reporter’s Rome-based Vatican correspondent.

The archbishop’s main question was: “Do you think (Finn) is fit to be a leader?” according to the paper’s report.

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One priest who met with Prendergast didn’t recall the question being quite that “bold.”

Patrick Rush, the pastor of Visitation parish and the diocese’s former vicar general, said he met with Prendergast on Sept. 22 at a small convent in Johnson County.

He said the hour-long conversation was cordial and centered on the response within the diocese to Finn’s leadership.

“His visit suggested a concern,” Rush said. “This is not a routine procedure for the Vatican.”

The archbishop questioned Rush about Finn’s misdemeanor conviction in September 2012 for failing to notify authorities about a priest who later pleaded guilty to production of child pornography.

That priest, Shawn Ratigan, later was sentenced to 50 years in federal prison and was “laicized,” or removed from the priesthood.

The episode sparked harsh criticism of the bishop and set off a new, and costly, round of litigation for a diocese that has seen its membership drop in recent decades.

During the criminal case, Finn appointed Rush to serve as “episcopal vicar with special mandate” to look after the diocese’s legal interests to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

While Rush said he and the archbishop spoke about the challenges facing the Finn and the diocese, Prendergast also noted that the church here has done very well recruiting and training new priests.

“He basically said it (whether Finn should continue to lead the diocese) would be a difficult recommendation,” Rush said.

Prendergast emphasized that his would not be binding on the Vatican, Rush said.

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Smith said Finn was notified in advance of the archbishop’s visit by the apostolic nuncio, the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S.

Finn, who is in Rome on pilgrimage and for the ordinations of local seminarians studying at the Pontifical North American College, told Smith about the visit during a phone call Monday afternoon after NCR published its report online.

“He cooperated with the process and was obligated by the terms of the visitation not to speak of it to anyone, including his senior staff and the communications director,” Smith said.

Prendergast told those he spoke with here that he was visiting the diocese for the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, which advises the pope on bishop appointments, according to the NCR report. That article also noted that the archbishop met with both supporters and critics of the Kansas City bishop.

Such “visitations,” as they’re known in the church, involve sending church officials to a seminary, diocese or religious institute to “improve the way in which it carries out its function in the life of the Church,” according to the Vatican website.

News of the Vatican investigation drew a sharp response from one of Finn’s harshest critics, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. Barbara Dorris, the group’s outreach director, derided the visitation as “timid” and “tepid.”

“If (Pope) Francis wants to investigate complicit church officials, there are plenty who merit it,” Dorris said in a written statement. “He need not start with one whose guilt has been clearly proven.”

To reach Mark Morris, call 816-234-4310 or send email to mmorris@kcstar.com.