A mystic for our time: 10-15/16-11
Training Muslim leaders: 10-18-11

What Bishop Finn got wrong: 10-17-11

The remarkable charges announced Friday against Bishop Robert W. Finn (pictured here) and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph of failing to report child abuse resulted from the bishop's apparent failure to practice what he preaches.

FinnI don't want in any way to prejudge the legal case against Finn and the diocese. The courts will make a finding about that.

But I do want to suggest that even to get a grand jury to issue such charges, its members had to be convinced that something went terribly wrong.

Even the recent independent investigation of the diocese -- authorized and ultimately accepted by the diocese -- said as much: "Diocesan leaders failed to follow their own policies and procedures for responding to reports. . ." relating to two priests.

But what, exactly, went wrong with Finn's own handling of this situation?

Yes, as the independent report notes, there was a systemic failure that resulted in no action being taken against a priest whose behavior was raising red flags (red flags that were being ignored by the bishop and others even when they were informed of them). But more to the point, there was Finn's personal failure to apply to the sexual abuse scandal the lessons of ministry he regularly articulated for his strong anti-abortion position.

Let me give you examples from just two speeches he made in 2009.

The first quote from Finn comes from an April 2009 speech he gave to a pro-life convention in Kansas City.

Among other things, he said: ". . .in the end the measure of our society is in how we treat the most vulnerable in our midst.”

Finn's reference, in context, was to babies in the womb. But if we can't include born children threatened by sexually abusive priests among "the most vulnerable," the term means little or nothing.

The next quotes are from an address Finn gave in August 2009 to pro-life volunteers in Kansas City.

He began this way: "What a beautiful mission we have: to bear witness, even to the point of some suffering, to the truth of the innate value of human life, and the dignity of every human person."

Again, Finn's focus was on fetuses who might be at risk of abortion, but doesn't "every human person" include children in Catholic churches and schools who are having to defend themselves against predatory priests about whom people in positions of authority know or should know?

In the same speech, Finn said, that "Human life must be safeguarded from its very first moment, through all the travails, joys and challenges we share, even to the moment of natural death."

Safeguarding human life surely must mean more than keeping people breathing. Surely it must mean giving every child an opportunity to live a healthy life unthreatened by priests who want to take pornographic photos of them.

And imagine what Finn and other diocesan officials might have done had they applied this quote from that Finn speech to vulnerable children under their care:

". . .an ill-formed conscience can give license to destructive tendencies within our lives, and can even cause people to neglect, or take advantage of others – particularly those who are vulnerable."

Or this:

"In our work we must do much good and – just as important we must act against what is clearly evil. We must take this responsibility. It is possible to commit sins of omission where there is grave responsibility."

That's exactly what Finn and his diocese now are charged with -- committing "sins (in secular terms, crimes) of omission where there is grave responsibility."

I am aware that all humans -- even bishops and popes and imams and pastors and rabbis and journalists -- are flawed and cannot be expected to do everything right.

But it seems to me that if you're going to give speeches and sermons outlining what you believe is required of people of faith, the burden of living up to those standards is more obvious for the one doing the sermonizing.

Finn's apparent myopia about abortion seems to have blinded him to his responsibilities to those already living and under his care. It may cost Finn a penalty in court. It already has cost children much more than that.

* * *


I find it reassuring to learn that as the nation celebrates and dedicates the monument in Washington, D.C., to the late Martin Luther King Jr., some folks are paying attention to King's theology and the reality that the civil rights movement was driven by people of faith. The second link in the previous sentence will connect you to a newspaper story from Anderson, S.C., about presentations having to do with King and Howard Thurman, whose writings influenced King.


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