KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - A Kansas City Catholic priest pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges on Thursday, admitting to the crimes just weeks before he was scheduled to go on trial for taking sexually explicit photos of several young girls.
Shawn Ratigan, 46, pleaded guilty to four counts of producing child pornography and one count of attempting to produce child pornography using girls as young as 2 years old. The photos, taken with still cameras and a cell phone, included close-up pictures of the children’s genitals. He faces 15-30 years in prison on each of the five counts, when sentenced at a later date.
Prosecutors said because of his guilty plea they would drop additional charges but said Ratigan would receive no other concession in exchange for his guilty plea.
“When a defendant who wears a religious collar who has the trust of a community engages in conduct of this nature his crimes are more devastating and more reprehensible,” said David Ketchmark, acting U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Missouri. “He will face stiff mandatory penalties. He won’t have an opportunity to harm another child.”
Ketchmark said prosecutors would recommend a “virtual life sentence.”
Clad in an orange jail suit and flanked by his attorneys, Ratigan showed no emotion when entering his guilty pleas and repeatedly admitted under questioning by the judge that he had produced child pornography using five girls from 2005 to 2009.
The actions took place at several locations - including a church choir loft, prosecutors said.
Ratigan’s arrest last year rocked the Catholic community in Kansas City as he had been known by members of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph as a fun-loving priest who had a special fondness for recording children’s parties and events with his camera.
Outrage grew when it became known that Bishop Robert Finn and other Diocese officials were aware of Ratigan’s photos - found on his laptop computer - in December 2010, but failed to notify authorities for several months.
And though Finn ordered Ratigan to stay away from children, no warnings were issued to parents, and Ratigan did subsequently engage in activities with children before another Diocese official finally reported the situation to police in May 2011.
Both Finn and the Diocese are now facing criminal charges for failing to report the photos they found on Ratigan’s laptop computer. Finn is the highest-ranking Catholic official to face criminal charges in connection with a sexual abuse case involving a priest.
The diocese and Finn have argued in court filings that there was no legal duty to report the photos, and also that the photographs did not constitute child pornography.
Family members for some of the victims were at the courthouse for Ratigan’s plea. They issued a statement through their attorney Rebecca Randles.
“We are happy that this chapter is coming to a close without our children being identified or having to testify in the trial process,” the statement said. “We are glad that Shawn Ratigan is taking ownership for his actions.”
The case against Ratigan and the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City is one of several law enforcement actions against Catholic leaders around the country as efforts expand around the United States to hold Catholic leaders accountable for the child sexual abuse scandal that has roiled the church.
The efforts have been heightened by the scandal at Penn State University where former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years.
A South Boston priest was charged on Wednesday with possessing and distributing child pornography using a computer in his parish’s rectory. Andrew Urbaniak, 39, was arraigned in South Boston District Court on one count of possession of child pornography and one charge of distributing images of a child in the nude, according to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office.
That followed the arrest in late July of a Roman Catholic priest in Philadelphia on charges that he sexually assaulted an altar boy in church in 1997.
That arrest, of suspended priest Andrew McCormick, 56, came only days after Monsignor William Lynn was sentenced to up to six years in prison for covering up child sex abuse by priests in Philadelphia.
Editing by Jackie Frank