Factors that Led to Bishop Finn’s Resignation

Two weeks ago, Bishop Robert Finn, the embattled bishop of the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph in Missouri, had his resignation accepted by appropriate authorities in the Vatican. Canon law accepts “graves reasons” other than things like age, infimity and so on as sufficient reason for the Church to accept a bishop’s resignation because of incapacity to continue as shepherd of a particular diocesan flock. Several commentators from the Catholic News Service, the National Catholic Reporter (based in Kansas City) and secular media like the Huffington Post said that Bishop Finn was ‘low hanging fruit” after his conviction of a misdemeanor failure to make a timely report of accusations of child endangerment against one of his priests to civil authorities in 2010. The term “low hanging fruit” is typically used to convey someone who is vulnerable in the lower branches of the vine. It implies you need to get the “low hanging fruit” so that you get to the higher ups. He was the most senior Catholic Church authority to be “convicted” in a matter involving sex and a Catholic priest.

Finn’s Early Days
When Finn was assigned as coadjutor bishop in 2004 I called my relatives in St. Louis County to ask if they knew anything about him. Since I had lived and worked as a full-time political science professor and advisor to the Missouri Western State University Catholic Newman Club, for over thirty years after coming to the St. Joseph, Mo. college as a newly minted Notre Dame Ph.D., I had seen the prevailing diocesan politico-religious culture and wondered how he would be received in Kansas City. Several of my extended family in St. Louis had been in parishes Fr. Finn served in Webster Groves and Florissant. They described a Fr. Finn as a “holy man” who was sought out as a confessor and spent countless hours regularly serving long lines of penitents. My spirits were raised by the news.

When it became clear he intended to emphasize youth ministry, evangelization and vocations, my hope for Newman Centers and the end of a vocation drought in the diocese were buoyed. It took very little time for me to realize, if there had been a welcome mat extended for him in Kansas City, it was pulled out from under him almost immediately. His views on the priorities of the church for the future in the diocese, like those of Pope St. John Paul II, who selected him, seemed almost diametrically opposed to a highly vocal segment of the laity and clergy in the diocese. Entrenched bureaucracies and long-standing cultural values do not lend themselves to a change in emphasis and priorities.

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As a person who has written, spoken, and published extensively on organizing and staffing the Modern Presidency, I have noted all too often what chief executives have found, when they sought to change the priorities and goals of governance with a shiny new electoral mandate, opponents dug in their heels. Franklin D. Roosevelt when he was Secretary of the Navy noted “presidents may come and go but bureaucracies live on and on.”

It is not my intention here to go into a long discourse about the legal case since I already did so in a lengthy guest editorial in the Kansas City Star. A recent article in USA Today summarizes the bishop’s leadership in the diocese before the accusations against Fr. Shawn Ratigan. Finn was later to be prosecuted on a flimsy misdemeanor charge for failure to properly administer a law on reporting abuse. After my years of interviewing well over one hundred members of White House staffs from the Franklin Roosevelt administration to Bush 43, it occurs to me that if prosecution and removal from office had been the punishment for flawed administration, many a president’s cabinet and staff would have been reduced to a skeleton crew.

The bishop had long been unpopular with the powers that be in certain Kansas City political and religious circles for his vocal opposition to embryonic stem cell research. He bravely stood his ground when so many others were too timid to stand up for Catholic teaching in the areas of bioethics. Suffice it to say here, I was convinced that as I often told students in my courses in Constitutional Law, that a skilled prosecutor could get a hand-selected grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. Finn was being caricatured as the poster boy for the clerical abuse scandals. Unlike other bishops who moved offender priests from parish to parish to shield them, Finn, when he understood the gravity of the situation, removed the accused priest from parish life and contact with children. Finn admitted mishandling of the case. Admissions of mistakes were not sufficient for some people who wanted a scalp. Catholic League president Bill Donohue recently reiterated the role of the SNAP (Survivors Network of People Abused by Priests) organization is this attempt to punish the highest reaches of church hierarchy that they could. How sad that this “conviction” seems to have factored into the Vatican’s decision to accept his resignation.

Given the US Catholics bishops’ Dallas Policy of No Tolerance in sexual abuse cases adopted in 2002 and the cost of settling cases from previous priest scandals in Kansas City dating to the 1950s at least, Finn selflessly offered to plead no contest to save what he could of the dignity and finances of the diocese. He agreed to subject himself to “education” on the problems of sexual predators and to plead guilty. This included two years of court-monitored supervision. It was painful to see a man who led a Eucharistic Procession down Broadway to bring Christ to the public square when others were afraid, being vilified by Catholics who subscribed to the political witch hunt against a deeply religious man. Since he was a member of the Priestly Society of the Holy Cross a group related to Opus Dei, he must take comfort in knowing what

St. Josemaria Escriva went through for his evangelization efforts. But like Paul the Apostle, after he was stoned, Finn got up and returned to his duties as shepherd of his Kansas City flock.

When Bureaucracies Resist Changing Priorities
The rocky relationship between Bishop Robert Finn and some members of the diocese Pope St. John Paul II sent him to shepherd is similar to what presidents have encountered after winning a mandate to administer the federal leviathan.

Many leaders in the bureaucracy also often retain their priorities and expect the new leader to accept them.  It was clear that Bishop Finn was sent by the Holy Father to seek more religious vocations, a goal which was not high on the priority list of many of his predecessor’s staffers and their supporters within the Kansas City Catholic community. Still, nine new priests are scheduled for ordination on May 24, 2015 for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph after Bishop Finn had resigned. To many in the diocese, what was needed was more “professional” theologians and religious or lay administrators who emphasized the priesthood of the faithful instead of more “practicioner” priests who were products of clericalist “seminary” education.

Some had suggested that Finn should simply retain Bishop Raymond Boland’s appointees. At the time that seemed a bit strange to me. It was rare indeed that a president carried on the goals of his predecessor or left the previous staffers in place. In fact as Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter learned, the Kennedy people (first Jack’s then Teddy’s) could not be trusted to transfer past loyalties to another president with different priorities.

It was my habit in interviews with White House staff to ask some common questions. These included such things as: “What are the five major goals of the president and what is his bottom line beyond which he won’t compromise?” Usually most of the answers were in line with stated policy. The ship of state could not move forward with oarsmen rowing in different directions simultaneously.

A Cautionary Tale for Future Shepherds
The Vatican’s recent decision to accept Bishop Finn’s resignation, came at an interesting time indeed. Similar efforts of letter writing and requests for apostolic visitations were being launched to push out other US bishops not to the liking of some lay activists and their clerical compatriots in places like San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Madison, Wisconsin to name a few. Like Blessed Pope Paul VI learned long ago, standing for centuries-old Church teaching (Humane Vitae) can bring down the wrath of those who would revise doctrine to better comport with modern “realities” on contraception and the need to be on the “right side of history.” Christ himself, we were reminded in the Easter liturgies, was only arrested when the Pharisees had come up with the necessary narrative.

As Pentecost approaches my prayer for Archbishop Joseph Naumann who agreed to administer the Missouri diocese along with his own in Kansas, is that the Holy Spirit give him the fortitude he needs for an arduous task and guide him as he bridges the troubled waters in Kansas City and prepares for the installation of whomever Pope Francis selects to pick up the pieces of the Diocese of Kansas City–St. Joseph.


  • Frank Kessler

    Frank Kessler, Professor of Political Science at Benedictine College, earned his Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame. He has published books, print articles, anthology chapters and review essays on the presidency, constitution, and international politics in Presidential Studies Quarterly, Current History, Revista Interamericana, and the American Political Science Review. He retired as Distinguished Professor at Missouri Western State University and has taught presidential politics to graduate students at University of Missouri – Kansas City.

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