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One Writer Asks: ‘Just How Flagrant Does a Pedophile Need to be Before the People Around Him Contact the Police?’

September 19, 2012


A great value of contemporary journalism and published commentary is that technology has made it easy for readers to offer instant responses. These modern-day letters to the editor often are as revealing as the writing that prompted them. A Sept. 10 New York Times op-ed piece, for example, by staff columnist Frank Bruni, is interesting not just for its substance but also for the readers’ reactions (there were about 150 at last glance).

Bruni cites a pair of high-profile cases of child sex predators. One, inevitably, is the infamous Jerry Sandusky.
Most of the column is about Missouri Catholic priest Rev. Shawn Ratigan, and a superior who, upon learning of Ratigan’s crimes, “acted no less despicably,” Bruni writes, than did Sandusky’s bosses at Penn State. At that institution, football easily won the day versus the concerns about ongoing criminal behavior Sandusky committed against kids.

As for Ratigan, Bruni asks rhetorically: “Just how flagrant does a pedophile need to be before the people around him contact the police?”

The columnist then recounts how, in 2010, a parochial-school principal notified the diocese in western Missouri about Ratigan’s strange behavior. It included making kids stick their hands in his pockets to retrieve pieces of candy. Later, “hundreds of troubling, furtively taken photographs were found on his laptop, according to court testimony given too long after that fact. One showed a toddler’s genitals.”

Was Ratigan arrested and jailed? Hardly, after a suicide attempt he was counseled, reassigned and deemed fit to say Mass for youth groups and even oversee an Easter-egg hunt attended by children. He later was caught trying to take an under-the-table photo up the skirt of the young daughter of his parishioner hosts.

It wasn’t until May of 2011 that an official from the diocese revealed knowledge of Ratigan’s child porn. Within the past month Ratigan was convicted, as was Bishop Robert W. Finn, the latter for failing to report what he knew.

The Finn conviction, Bruni notes, makes him “the first American bishop to be found criminally culpable for his inaction in the face of suspected child abuse.”

Bruni then writes that “I’m less interested in the grim milestone of Bishop Finn’s conviction than in the crucial lessons his story reiterates.”

He cites other once-revered institutions such as Penn State and the Boy Scouts of America, where officials notoriously labored “to protect their reputations or simply to avoid conflict” by failing to report sex crimes committed under their watch.

The Bruni piece, here again, generated many dozens of reader responses. One is worth noting if only because it suggests just how easily it can be for some to miss the point entirely about tacit approval of sex crimes by officials at revered institutions.

The unsigned comment apparently asks readers to place the Bruni column within the context of all the good that has been done by Catholic “communities of men and women who kept the cultures of the east and west alive in copied and recopied manuscripts through the dark ages.

“And communities of men and women who gave their very lives to protect children abandoned on streets and to take care of the sick that no one else would touch.

“And communities of men and women who unselfishly taught generations of young children regardless of their race, color or religion.

“And communities of men and women who sacrificed their lives on battlefields ministering to the wounded and the dead but never raising a hand or weapon in self defense.

“And communities of men and women who have fought injustice and gone to jail in acts of civil disobedience against discrimination and wholesale killing.

“And communities of men and women who go into danger zones of earthquakes, floods, civil war to bring aid to those in need regardless of race, color, politics or creed.”

Perhaps the author of the above somehow feels such honorable behavior means we needn’t be so harsh in dealing with the criminal minority within the institution. The irony is that we should deal with such crimes precisely because of the examples of better nature eloquently cited in the passage.

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