KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City’s bishop has become the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic official indicted on a charge of failing to protect children after he and his diocese waited five months to tell police about hundreds of images of child pornography discovered on a priest’s computer, officials said Friday.

Bishop Robert Finn, the first U.S. bishop criminally charged with sheltering an abusive clergyman, and the Kansas City-St. Joseph Catholic Diocese have pleaded not guilty on one count each of failing to report suspected child abuse.

PROSECUTOR: OFFICIALS FLOUTED LAW

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker said Finn and the diocese were required under state law to report the discovery to police because the images gave them reason to believe a child had been abused.

“Now that the grand jury investigation has resulted in this indictment, my office will pursue this case vigorously,” she said. “I want to ensure there are no future failures to report resulting in other unsuspecting victims.”

The indictment, handed down Oct. 6 but sealed because Finn was out of the country, says the bishop failed to report suspicions against the priest from Dec. 16, 2010, when the photos were discovered, to May 11, 2011, when the diocese turned them over to police.

Finn denied wrongdoing in a statement Friday and said he’d begun to overhaul diocesan reporting policies and act on key findings of a diocese-commissioned inquiry into its practices.

“We will meet these announcements with a steady resolve and a vigorous defense,” said Finn, who, according to officials, was not under arrest.

Finn faces a maximum penalty of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted of the misdemeanor. The diocese also faces a $1,000 fine.

After the Catholic sex abuse scandal erupted in 2002, grand juries in several regions reviewed how bishops handled claims against priests. But most of the allegations were decades old and far beyond the statute of limitations.

Until Finn’s indictment, no U.S. Catholic bishop had been criminally charged over his response to abuse claims, but some bishops reached plea deals to avoid prosecution against their dioceses.

A ‘TABOO’ IS CHALLENGED

A former secretary for clergy in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Monsignor William Lynn, was charged in February with child endangerment. A grand jury report had accused the archdiocese of keeping some credibly accused clergy in church jobs where they had access to children. Lynn has pleaded not guilty.

The Philadelphia grand jury report and the Kansas City case have raised questions about how closely other dioceses are following the national discipline policy the U.S. bishops adopted in 2002. Church leaders had promised to remove all credibly accused clergy from church work.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops child protection officers said dioceses have taken swift action in abuse cases and lapses have been rare.

Terry McKiernan of BishopAccountability.org, which manages a public database of records on clergy abuse cases, called Friday’s indictment especially important because it involved a recent case. He said the charge being a misdemeanor makes it no less significant.

“The taboo against acknow-ledging that bishops are responsible in these matters has been challenged,” McKiernan said.

Finn acknowledged earlier this year that a parish principal had raised concerns in May 2010 that the Rev. Shawn Ratigan was behaving inappropriately around children, but that he didn’t read the principal’s written report until this spring.

NOT ONE PICTURE … HUNDREDS

Ratigan was charged in May with three state child porno-graphy counts, and in June with 13 federal counts of producing, possessing and attempting to produce child pornography. He has pleaded not guilty and remains jailed.

After learning of the principal’s concerns in 2010, Monsignor Robert Murphy, the diocese’s vicar general, spoke to Ratigan about setting boundaries with children. He then gave Finn a verbal summary of the concerns and his meeting with the priest.

Last December, a computer technician found on Ratigan’s laptop hundreds of what he called “disturbing” images of children, most of them fully clothed with the focus on their crotch areas, and a series of pictures of a 2- to 3-year-old girl with her genitals exposed.

Diocese officials reported the photos to Murphy, who did not report them to authorities. Instead, he called a police captain who is a member of the diocese’s independent review board and described a single photo of a nude child that was not sexual in nature.

Without viewing the photo, the captain said he was advised that although such a picture might meet the definition of child pornography, it probably wouldn’t be investigated or prosecuted. It was not until this May that Murphy told police that Ratigan’s laptop had contained hundreds of photos.