Shawn Ratigan, a priest, entered a guilty plea to child pornography charges that rocked the Kansas City Catholic Diocese.
Ratigan was scheduled to go on trial later this month. Ratigan faces at least 15 years in prison for crime involving five children.
"Each of Ratigan's victims is represented in this guilty plea so that each child will receive the justice she deserves," U.S. Attorney David M. Ketchmark said. "When a sexual predator wears a collar, his crimes impact the entire community. This predator priest will now face tough mandatory penalties for his crimes."
Ketchmark said he will ask a judge to impose a sentence that means Ratigan never sees freedom again. He said because Ratigan was a priest that his actions were even more reprehensible and heinous because he took advantage of trusting children and their families.
Ratigan admitted he exploited five girls between the ages of 2 and 12 years old over a six-year period by taking pornographic pictures of them. The crimes occurred at several locations, including a church choir loft. One of the girls was sleeping and he removed her pants to take the pictures.
Families faced Ratigan in court as he pled guilty. He was shackled and displayed little emotion as he pled guilty to each charge.
Ratigan, 46, of Independence was charged with 13 federal counts of sexual exploitation of children after a technician found troubling images on his computer in late 2010. In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors dropped seven charges. But each victim was represented by a guilty plea.
The 46-year-old also faces three state charges of possessing child pornography. Some are upset that the Ratigan has not been defrocked.
In a statement, the diocese expressed "its profound concern for anyone who may have been harmed by Shawn Ratigan and urges prayer for all affected by his actions."
The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests issued a statement said it would be good that Ratigan's victims would be spared the trauma of a trial. The organization again criticized the diocese's handling of the allegations against Ratigan.
"It's still important for victims, witnesses and other whistleblowers to come forward," SNAP said in its statement. "We must help make sure justice is done and kids are protected. That means that whatever we may know or suspect must be given, as soon as possible, to law enforcement, so that they can build the strongest case possible against these wrongdoers."
Bishop Robert Finn previously has said he made some failings in the case, including saying that he was unaware that a principal had complained about Ratigan's behavior around children more than a year before Ratigan was arrested.
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.
In December 2010, 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, including on St. Patrick's Day and Easter Sunday.
Ratigan tried to commit suicide after the computer repairman found the pictures, according to court records. A suicide note was found in which Ratigan expressed sorrow for the harm he had caused the church, children and his family, according to court records.
One of Ratigan's victims and her parents allege that parishioners were asked to pray for Ratigan as he recuperated from carbon monoxide poisoning.
After recuperating, Ratigan was assigned in February to assist as a chaplain at a convent in Independence. The Sisters of St. Francis often host young girls for retreats, dinners and other events, according to court records.
The girl and her parents said Finn and diocese leaders failed to warn parents that children should be kept from Ratigan and failed to notify Missouri social workers.
In fact, Ratigan stayed some weekends at the home of Catholic parishioners "who had young children and had no warning or understanding about Father Ratigan's propensity to photograph and abuse children," according to the lawsuit. Ratigan went to homes for dinners and children's parties and took pictures of children this spring, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit also claims that Finn personally gave permission for Ratigan to be co-presiding priest at a girl's communion in May 2011, months after the pornographic images were discovered.
The diocese alerted authorities to the pictures on May 13, which included pictures of the 9-year-old girl.
Ratigan, the diocese and Finn were sued by another girl in June. The girl and her parents allege Ratigan engaged in sexual misconduct with the girl from 2006 through 2010.
A grand jury indicted Finn and the diocese on misdemeanor violations for not reporting suspected child abuse. The grand jurors said diocese officials and Finn had reasonable cause to believe that Father Shawn Ratigan was taking sexually explicit pictures of children.
Finn, who has apologized for some of his actions, and the diocese are contesting the criminal charges and have maintained that they did not violate state law.
Civil suits are pending. Rebecca Randles, a plaintiffs attorney, said her clients are sad but relieved that the case ended without going to trial.
"We are happy that this chapter is coming to a close without our children having to be identified or testifying in a trial process," Randles said.
Victims and others are hoping for a stiff sentence that sends a strong message.
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