(Kansas City Star) As a priest, he absolved others of their sins in the anonymity of the confessional.
Thursday afternoon, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan stood in the very public forum of a federal courtroom and confessed to some of his own.
Ratigan, 46, pleaded guilty to using five girls to produce or attempt to produce child pornography over several years while serving as pastor to congregations in the Northland and St. Joseph.
Each count carries a maximum sentence of up to 30 years in federal prison.
“When a defendant who wears a religious collar, who has the trust of the community, engages in conduct of this nature, his crimes are more devastating and more reprehensible,” said David M. Ketchmark, acting U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri. “With today’s guilty pleas … there’s an assurance that he will face stiff mandatory penalties and that he won’t have an opportunity to harm another child.”
Ketchmark said prosecutors will recommend what he termed “a virtual life sentence.”
Ratigan pleaded guilty to one count for each child. At the time of sentencing, prosecutors will dismiss eight remaining counts, Ketchmark said, but they will ask the judge to take those crimes into account when determining the sentence.
Many family members of the victims were in the courthouse Thursday and said afterward they were satisfied with the guilty pleas.
“We are happy that this chapter is coming to a close without our children being identified or having to testify in the trial process,” they said in a statement read by their attorney, Rebecca Randles. “We are glad that Shawn Ratigan is taking ownership for his actions …”
Ratigan’s federal public defender, Robert Kuchar, said that by pleading guilty, Ratigan was “accepting full responsibility” for what he did.
“These were tragic events for all involved,” Kuchar said after the hearing. “We will now focus our energy on ensuring that he receives a fair and reasonable sentence.”
Beyond damage done to the victims and their families, the case has roiled the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in controversy and litigation over how church officials responded to Ratigan’s crimes. Civil and criminal cases remain pending against Bishop Robert Finn and the diocese.
But Thursday’s hearing in Kansas City focused on Ratigan’s history of taking disturbing photographs of children.
The victims, identified in court documents as Jane Does 1 through 5, ranged in age from 2 to 9 when the crimes Ratigan pleaded guilty to happened.
Jane Doe 1 was 6 in June 2005 when Ratigan posed her with her legs spread and panties pulled to one side, according to the indictment, which U.S. District Judge Gary Fenner read to Ratigan.
A repair technician discovered that photograph on Ratigan’s laptop computer in December 2010. At that time, the computer was “turned over to agents for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph,” according to court documents.
Ratigan attempted suicide after the discovery and received medical treatment and a psychological examination. Finn subsequently stripped the priest of his duties at a Northland parish, assigned him to an Independence mission house and said that he ordered him to have no contact with children. Diocesan officials reported Ratigan to authorities in May 2011, after he violated the restrictions Finn placed on him.
In May 2006, Ratigan photographed 2-year-old Jane Doe 2 with her private area exposed at St. Joseph’s Church in Easton, Mo., the court documents state.
The third count Ratigan pleaded guilty to Thursday involved Jane Doe 3. She was 5 in 2007 when Ratigan took photographs of her naked pubic region, the indictment states.
Jane Doe 4 was 7 in July 2009 when Ratigan, without her knowledge, took “close-up” photographs of her crotch area while she wore a bathing suit, according to the court documents.
The final victim, Jane Doe 5, was asleep, court documents allege, when Ratigan pulled down her pants and photographed her. That happened sometime between August 2008 and September 2009 when she was 8 or 9.
After reading the details for each count, Fenner asked Ratigan if he was “in fact” guilty.
“Yes, your honor,” Ratigan answered each time in a soft but steady voice.
The priest, his hands shackled in front of him and wearing orange jail pants and shirt, leaned forward and focused his attention on the judge throughout Thursday’s hearing, never glancing at the crowded courtroom gallery behind him.
The eight charges to be dismissed at sentencing involved additional incidents with the same victims. One happened months after Ratigan had been removed from his pastoral duties and told to have no contact with children.
After accepting Ratigan’s guilty pleas, Fenner ordered a pre-sentence investigation. After it is done, a sentencing date will be set. Ratigan will remain in federal custody.
The diocese reiterated a statement it issued on Wednesday, expressing “profound concern” and urging prayer for anyone harmed by Ratigan’s actions. The diocese also said it was committed to ensuring that every abuse or misconduct allegation was addressed immediately, and it noted that Finn had appointed an ombudsman last year to investigate all reports.
In their statement, the victims’ families thanked prosecutors and asked people to respect their privacy.
“We appreciate the sensitivity with which the prosecution has treated our children and we ask that you also maintain their anonymity as we all begin to heal,” they said.
Thursday’s guilty pleas do not resolve Ratigan’s legal troubles.
He is charged in Clay County Circuit Court with three felony counts of possessing child pornography. Prosecutors there said they plan to move forward with that case once the federal case is completed.
Finn and the diocese are facing trial in Jackson County Circuit Court on misdemeanor criminal counts alleging that they failed to follow the Missouri law that mandates that clergy and others must report suspected child abuse to authorities. That trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 24.
Ratigan also faces four civil lawsuits involving the child pornography allegations. Those lawsuits include Finn and the diocese as defendants, alleging that they were aware of Ratigan’s troubling behavior and the images on his computer but failed to act.
The focus now turns to Finn’s criminal trial, said Timothy Lytton, an Albany Law School professor and author of a book that examines the role of lawsuits in the national clergy sex-abuse crisis.
“I think the real significance of Kansas City is what’s likely to happen to the bishop and whether or not he’s going to face public trial with national press coverage and the possibility of a conviction,” Lytton said.
One local Catholic said she was pleased with Ratigan’s guilty pleas but hoped it didn’t detract from the bishop’s case.
“I’m glad that he’s pleading guilty,” said Stephanie Gunn of St. Thomas More Parish, where Ratigan was associate pastor from June 2004 to June 2005. “My hope is that Shawn does suffer the consequences for all of his actions and that the bishop also will suffer the consequences for his ignoring Shawn’s actions.”
Other Catholics said they continued to stand by the bishop.
“I really can’t comment on Mr. Ratigan, because God is the ultimate judge,” said Jenny Ruppert of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish. “But we do know with all of our hearts that Bishop Finn has done everything that he knows to do in his power to protect our children. We still fully support Bishop Finn.”
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