Kansas City diocese creates position to oversee sex abuse investigations

Thursday, June 23, 2011 | 8:31 p.m. CDT; updated 10:02 p.m. CDT, Thursday, June 23, 2011

KANSAS CITY — The Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has created a new position to oversee the investigation of sexual abuse allegations against priests by replacing a vicar general who had been criticized for how he handled a recent case.

The Rev. Joseph Powers, pastor of the Co-Cathedral in St. Joseph, will be the vicar for clergy and take over the responsibilities regarding sex abuse allegations that were previously assigned to Monsignor Robert Murphy, the diocese announced Wednesday.

As vicar of clergy, Powers will be a liaison for diocesan priests and will oversee assignments and pastoral effectiveness, the diocese said in a statement. He will help Bishop Robert Finn respond to allegations of clerical misconduct and serve on the Diocesan Independent Review Board, which assesses sexual abuse allegations against priests and makes recommendations to the bishop.

"With Father Powers assuming the duties of vicar for clergy, we strengthen our administrative oversight of the diocese and draw upon Father Powers' pastoral experience in urban, rural and suburban parishes throughout the diocese," Finn said in the statement.

The diocese did not explain why Murphy was removed from his duties on sexual abuse cases.

Murphy has recently been criticized for his handling of the case of the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, who was charged last month with three counts of possessing child pornography. Ratigan has pleaded not guilty and remains in custody on a $200,000 bond.

After Ratigan's arrest, it was revealed that the principal of St. Patrick School in Kansas City had written diocesan officials more than a year ago with concerns about Ratigan's interactions with children. Finn told reporters that Murphy briefed him about the memo, but he did not ask to read it.

Murphy will continue to supervise chancery employees and serve on diocesan boards and committees. He also will remain pastor of St. Bridget Parish in Pleasant Hill.

A victims' advocacy group said the diocese's actions Wednesday will have little effect.

"Cover-ups of clergy sex crimes run deep in this diocese, so changing job titles for one or two clerics isn't going to change much," said Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

The day of the announcement, plaintiffs who received a $10 million settlement from the diocese in 2008 in a sexual abuse lawsuit said the diocese had not lived up to parts of that settlement designed to protect children from abuse. The plaintiffs are seeking arbitration, The Kansas City Star reported.

Some plaintiffs in the 2008 settlement sent a letter on June 8 asking for proof that the diocese had complied with a number of reforms including establishing victims' advocacy programs and immediately reporting any abuse or suspicion of abuse to law enforcement authorities.

The 47 plaintiffs "endured five years of litigation, insisting upon protections for the future as the first item of negotiation," attorney Rebecca Randles said in the letter. "Evidence strongly suggests the diocese is violating those commitments and breaching their 2008 agreement."

The diocese responded in a letter dated Monday that it "has complied with and continues to comply with each of these items." The plaintiffs responded by seeking arbitration Wednesday.

Diocesan spokeswoman Rebecca Summers referred to a "community update" on the 2008 settlement agreement posted this week on the diocese's website. According to the document, since July 1, 2008, the diocese has provided 547 counseling sessions to 34 victims or their family members who have reported sexual abuse. This has cost $82,562. The document also said that Finn has written 118 letters of apology to plaintiffs or their families.

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