The calling leads priest to Ratigan’s prison

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The Kansas City Star

10 June 2012


The Kansas City Star

The Rev. Chuck Tobin, seen here during a Hispanic Mass last year at St. Sabina Catholic Church in Belton, has visited the Rev. Shawn Ratigan each week in Leavenworth. Tobin retired last month after serving parishes for 44 years.

Fred Blocher

The Rev. Chuck Tobin, seen here during a Hispanic Mass last year at St. Sabina Catholic Church in Belton, has visited the Rev. Shawn Ratigan each week in Leavenworth. Tobin retired last month after serving parishes for 44 years.

Each Monday afternoon, the priest dutifully drives to keep his 4:15 appointment.

Many people will consider it a meeting with the devil.

The Rev. Chuck Tobin travels to the maximum security federal jail for pretrial defendants in Leavenworth to visit the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, the only Kansas City area priest recently charged in local criminal courts as part of the church sex abuse scandal.

Hate the sin. Love the sinner.

Accusations of pedophilia challenge that spiritual calling perhaps more than any other crime. Even the other inmates despise Ratigan, Tobin said.

Ratigan, he says, is kept in isolation but often endures hours of verbal abuse. Other prisoners scream insults, taunting Ratigan to slit his own throat with a razor the next time guards allow him a shave and a shower. Pedophiles are at the bottom of the food chain in prisons.

And Ratigan is accused of awful acts, including snapping photos of a toddler’s vaginal area, pulling down a sleeping girl’s pants, angling his camera to take a crotch shot of a pre-teen as she stood in a pair of shorts. That last allegedly happened on an Easter Sunday, on church property.

In addition to state charges, he faces 13 federal felony counts relating to the possession and production of child pornography involving five girls.

Father Tobin, 70, hasn’t concerned himself with following every detail in the cases. But the recently retired priest knows enough to be horrified.

Once a victim of a violent crime himself, the calling to minister to prisoners is something Tobin has answered throughout his more than four decades as a priest.

In some ways, his compassion is less about the charges Ratigan faces and more about the pedophile priests who got away with their crimes, at least on earth.

“I guess what gets me is that there are other priests who have done horrible things,” Tobin said. “Things that might even be much worse in my opinion. They’ve sodomized boys, and they never saw one day in jail.”

He’s right.

Other priests have clearly done terrible things to children. It’s just that their sexual abuse victims came forward years later, long after either the statute of limitations closed, credible evidence was long destroyed or both.

The dozens of accusations and the $10 million settlement the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese paid to 47 victims or their family members in 2008 all came through civil proceedings.

Tobin doesn’t know if pedophilia is an addiction that can be treated or if it’s solely a criminal deviance. With other types of criminals, social justice, the role of poverty in crime statistics, has long concerned him.

“Whenever you work with prison ministry, so often they themselves have been victims in some ways or have gotten the short end of the stick,” he said.

He admits it can be a challenge to balance the stomach-turning nature of sex crimes against children with compassion for Ratigan’s current psychological struggles. Ratigan attempted suicide shortly after being confronted by diocesan officials about photos on his computer.

“But for now,” Tobin said, “he has not been proven guilty.”

Tobin retired last month after serving parishes for 44 years. He celebrated his final Sunday Masses as pastor at St. Sabina in Belton last week, but his ministry to Ratigan goes on.

He’s cognizant Ratigan will be assisted by one public defender.

The other church figure charged in connection with the case, Bishop Robert Finn, has a cadre of lawyers readied for his defense.

Finn is charged in Jackson County Circuit Court with misdemeanor failure to report suspicions of child abuse. After the diocese was first alerted to the photos on Ratigan’s computer by a technician, Finn warned him to stay away from children and transferred him to a mission house in Independence. But law enforcement wasn’t notified until months later.

Ratigan allegedly took some of the lewd photos after the move.

Tobin had met Ratigan briefly before the charges but didn’t really know him.

Now he’s been designated as Ratigan’s chaplain, which gives him an hour a week as the priest awaits trial. Other visitors, although there are few, would get a half hour.

Occasionally, Ratigan’s mother visits. Tobin is the only regular. Mostly, the two priests pray.

Ratigan is kept in isolation from other prisoners, and Tobin never sees him in person. They sit in separate buildings, linked by video camera and telephone line.

Ratigan’s hands are shackled. He awkwardly holds the receiver to his ear during the session.

No items can pass from a visitor to an inmate, so Tobin arranged for the publisher to send Ratigan a copy of Small Christian Communities, a guide for weekly gospels and prayer. They read it together.

At least one guard is always nearby.

Tobin mailed church bulletins to Ratigan, but they were confiscated by prison officials. Children were in some photos.

Anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, of “Dead Man Walking” fame, often comments about God’s view of even those who have committed heinous crimes.

Nothing they can do, she says, can take away the God image within them.

Others who practice prison ministry locally agreed, saying their role is often to acknowledge the human dignity, the God-given life, that is in each person.

But inside prison walls, pedophiles often face disdain, even from murderers.

The reasons have to do with inmate hierarchy, perceived weaknesses and the fact that many inmates were sexually abused as children themselves.

A priest convicted of child sexual abuse in Massachusetts was stomped and then strangled to death by another inmate in 2003.

Tobin knows firsthand how it feels to be victimized by violence. He was shot and a nun was raped in a highly sensational case in 1970.

Tobin, then 26, was seated in a car with the nun near the Country Club Plaza. Two young men attempted a robbery, brandishing guns. Tobin fought one of the men, was thrown from the car and shot. The bullet went into his knee, traveled the length of his leg and exited his shoe.

The nun was driven to another location and sexually assaulted.

One of the men was convicted. He got 144 years combined for all charges, won parole in 1983 and then was charged again in a rape a short time later.

“I never tried to visit him,” Tobin said, remembering that Pope John Paul II once visited his own attempted assassin.

The man who attacked Tobin is still in prison, something he didn’t know until The Star checked Missouri prison records.

Tobin figures Ratigan may serve many years and possibly be moved to an out-of-state prison. He says he’ll consider trying to continue the visits.

“I feel like if any one of us was in prison, we would want someone there,” Tobin said. “That’s right out of Scriptures.”

To reach Mary Sanchez, call 816-234-4752 or send email to

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