The Kansas City Catholic Diocese is defending itself against a groundbreaking lawsuit involving the alleged distribution of child pornography.
The attorney representing a family suing the Kansas City Catholic Diocese says this is the first time that someone has sued the Catholic Church for violating federal child pornography laws.
"The (federal) law has pretty severe penalties for anyone who holds or views or otherwise distributes any kind of pornography. And we believe that the allegations against the diocese fall clearly and firmly within (the federal) law," attorney Rebecca Randles told KCTV's Stacey Cameron.
Bishop Robert Finn, who oversees the Kansas City diocese, citing the pending lawsuit repeatedly declined requests from KCTV5 Investigator Stacey Cameron to discuss the case.
The allegations center around a Kansas City priest and how the diocese handled complaints about Shawn Ratigan, including the discovery of a picture of a naked girl on his personal laptop. The priest was living at the Sisters of St. Frances of the Holy Eucharist in Independence when he was arrested in May.
The 45-year-old Ratigan has been charged in Clay County Circuit Court with violating Missouri child pornography laws. Prosecutors allege that Ratigan took lewd pictures of young girls, which police in court documents say they found uploaded on his personal computer and a church computer.
Ratigan has pleaded not guilty.
Finn previously has said he made some failings in the case, including saying that he unaware that a principal had complained about Ratigan's behavior around children more than a year before Ratigan was arrested. Finn has tapped former U.S. Attorney Todd Graves to investigate the diocese's handling of the case.
Ratigan is accused of taking nude pictures of a three-year-old girl and four-year-old girl, according to court documents. Randles also alleges that child pornography was found on a camera owned by Ratigan.
In December, Ratigan took his personal laptop in for repairs and a computer technician discovered pornographic images of girls on the laptop, including pictures of girls' vaginas, according to court documents.
The computer repairman alerted the diocese to the images. Church officials then asked a diocese computer technician to review the laptop, according to police investigators. Copies of the image were made but the laptop was turned over to Ratigan's family, who then destroyed the laptop, according to investigators. A church official in December described a single picture over the phone to a police officer, investigators have said.
The diocese didn't give the images to police until May. In the ensuing five months, Ratigan remained with the diocese. Diocese officials have said they contacted police in May after Ratigan ignored warnings to stay away from children.
Finn has apologized for his actions.
"In hindsight, we should have turned the pictures over to police in December," Finn told reporters in May.
The actions by Finn and other diocese leaders have outraged Randles.
"How can you not protect the most innocent of our sheep? The most innocent of parishioners. This really is all about protecting children," Randles told Cameron.
Randles contends that Finn did everything he could to keep the allegations against Ratigan quiet even after diocese officials knew that Ratigan possessed child pornography. Cameron asked Randles if she believed that Finn deliberately attempted to cover up illegal activities by one of his priests.
"How can it not be? We know they had actual knowledge of a little girl naked on the priest's camera in December. And yet they continued to allow him to have access to children," Randles said. "I think it would be unfair if we didn't hold the bishop accountable for these actions."
Cameron asked Randles whether the diocese conducting an internal review of a church computer used by Ratigan meets the definition of distributing child pornography.
"An internal investigation is probably necessary, although I'm not certain in the case of child pornography that anyone needs to see those pictures," Randles maintains. "As long as you know there are pictures of children without their clothing on (found) on a priest's camera that should be sufficient (cause) for the diocese to take action (by contacting authorities)."
Randles says more lawsuits are expected as police work to identify all the young girls in the pictures.
In his statement to reporters in May, Finn said, "As bishop, I take full responsibility for these failures and apologize for them. Clearly more has to be done. Other actions and recommendations are forthcoming."
That's much too little too late for Randles. In the lawsuit, the St. Joseph family claims that a report was made in 2006 about Ratigan's inappropriate behavior around a preschooler. The lawsuit claims that Finn and other diocese leaders concealed the 2006 report and ignored years of warning signs.
"Children were harmed," Randles said. "They didn't give any parishioner any indication that they should keep their children away. They didn't even warn family members that they should keep their children safe from Father Ratigan."
To read previous coverage, click here.