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KANSAS CITY (Reuters) - A Catholic Bishop in Kansas City did not have a legal obligation to report suspected child sexual abuse by a local priest even if he knew about it, a lawyer for the bishop said on Tuesday.
In a preview to the upcoming trial of Bishop Robert Finn of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, a lawyer for Finn asked Jackson County Circuit Judge John Torrence to dismiss the charge against him because he said there was another Diocese official who should have reported the priest to police.
"Bishop Finn had no statutory duty to report. We believe that this is clear," said attorney J.R. Hobbs in arguing for Judge Torrence to dismiss the case against Finn.
Judge Torrence said he would take the matter under advisement and likely rule on the matter next week.
Bishop Finn is the highest-ranking Catholic leader to face criminal charges in the United States related to alleged abuse by a priest.
His case marks what some observers see as a key turning point in assigning accountability to an organization that has a long history of protecting priests who abuse children.
The priest in this case, Father Shawn Ratigan, has been charged with 13 counts of child pornography, some of which he kept on a church computer, and is jailed awaiting trial.
Bishop Finn and others in the Diocese became aware of the pictures in December 2010 but Finn never made an official report to authorities even though he did send Ratigan for psychological evaluation and ordered him to stay away from children.
Another Diocese official finally reported the situation to police in May 2011.
During his hearing, the bishop sat stoically in the courtroom, clad in his cleric's collar with a large gold cross dangling from a gold chain around his neck.
He joked afterward with his attorney, smiling and laughing before exiting through a back door to the courtroom.
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker argued against dismissal, saying Bishop Finn not only had a legal duty to report the suspected child abuse, but as the head of the Diocese, he was the key person who should have reported it.
A Diocese "response team" set up to deal with suspected child abuse by priests was never even activated, she said.
The "pornographic pictures of young girls" Finn became aware of more than fit the definition of what the Bishop knew authorities should be alerted to, Baker said. "There were policies in place. But they didn't use them," Baker said.
Finn, who leads about 134,000 Catholics of the Kansas City-area Diocese, was charged in October with one misdemeanor count of failing to report suspected abuse of a child.
The charges are based on "mandated reporter" laws, which require school officials, clergy and virtually anyone with access to and control over a child to immediately alert child protective services and law enforcement if they have any reason to suspect abuse or child endangerment.
Finn's lawyer argued another Diocese official was designated as the mandated reporter, which meant Finn did not have to make a report himself. That individual, Monsignor Robert Murphy, was the one who ultimately did report Ratigan to police.
Both Finn and the Diocese were indicted by a grand jury in Jackson County in October. It heard evidence that the Bishop had received warnings for months that the 46-year-old priest posed a threat. Both have pleaded not guilty to those charges.
Finn faces a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $1,000 fine on the misdemeanor charge.
Editing by Tim Gaynor and Todd Eastham