Changes in Pennsylvania law open door to charges of sex abuse by Philadelphia clergy

Posted: February 28, 2011

Investigating clergy sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia was an exercise in frustration for the 2005 grand jury.

It identified 63 current and former priests credibly accused of molesting minors and lambasted the hierarchy for an "immoral cover-up" of the alleged crimes.

Yet no one was indicted.

The reason: Pennsylvania's statute of limitations had expired on assaults dating back to the 1960s, '70s, and '80s. "We surely would have charged them," the hamstrung panel wrote, "if we could have."

Since then, laws have changed - enough to crack open the church door to five criminal indictments.

Earlier this month, following a new grand jury's recommendations, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office charged two priests, a defrocked priest, and a parochial-school teacher with raping and sodomizing two altar boys in the 1990s.

Even more surprising was the indictment of Msgr. William Lynn. Once Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua's secretary for clergy, he was charged with two felony counts of child endangerment for allegedly putting known abusive priests into contact with minors. Lynn had been excoriated at length in the 2005 grand jury report for similar actions, but was not charged.

The five, all out on bail, face a preliminary hearing Thursday in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court.

What is different this time around?

For one, the state's criminal statute of limitations has been extended for sexual assaults on children. In the process, the long-ago cases of the two altar boys remained eligible for prosecution.

State lawmakers four years ago expanded the child-endangerment law to apply to employers and supervisors whose underlings abused minors in their care. The 2005 grand jurors had complained they could not use the law to indict church leaders because it seemingly pertained only to direct caretakers of children, such as parents, teachers, and day-care workers. Citing the new language in the endangerment law, prosecutors charged Lynn. His lawyers say that interpretation won't hold up in court.

Archdiocesan policy now calls for assault accusations against its personnel to be reported to the District Attorney's Office. The 2011 grand jury investigation "began as a result of reports received from the archdiocese," said District Attorney Seth Williams, who commended the action.

All told, Williams has been able to proceed with felony charges in ways that his predecessor, Lynne M. Abraham, could not in 2005.

Both grand jury reports urged that the criminal statute of limitations be abolished for child sex abuse, so victims could file charges at any age.

Legislators have declined to go that far. But the changes they've already made in laws relating to child molestation have put the state "ahead of the curve nationally," said Kathleen McDonnell, legislative liaison for the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association. "We're probably among the more progressive."

Until relatively recently, child sex abusers of any stripe had little to fear from Pennsylvania law.

Victims, no matter how young, had two years to report crimes such as groping, five years if they were sodomized or raped.

Children rarely stepped forward in time. Their molesters remained free.

In 1991, lawmakers extended the statute, giving victims until their 23d birthday to press charges in major sexual assaults, and until their 20th for lesser crimes such as inappropriate touching.

In 2002, the time frame for the most serious attacks was lengthened again, to age 30.

A year later, after media revelations of clergy sex abuse here, Abraham announced a grand jury investigation into the archdiocese that would reach back a half-century.

But, it turned out, of hundreds of abuse cases alleged against 63 priests, not one victim had gone to law enforcement within the time allotted by the statute of limitations.

"Our information was simply too old" for prosecution, the 2005 report lamented.

The next year, the statute was extended to age 50.

Significantly, those extensions applied to cases still legally "fresh," or prosecutable, under the previous statute.

That included the two altar boys - identified as "Billy" and "Mark" - whose complaints brought on the current spate of felony charges.

"Billy" was 10 when he allegedly was orally sodomized by two priests, the Revs. Charles Engelhardt and Edward Avery, at St. Jerome's parish in Northeast Philadelphia in 1998. The next year, according to the charges, he was sodomized and raped by sixth-grade parochial schoolteacher Bernard Shero.

In 2009, at age 21, "Billy" went to archdiocesan officials with his story.

"Mark" was 14 in the summer of 1996, when he visited the Chester County apartment of the Rev. James J. Brennan, a family friend. He was 28 in 2009 when he reported that Brennan had raped him that day.

In both cases, the archdiocesan Victim Assistance Office notified the church's law firm, Stradley, Ronon, Stevens & Young, which gave the information to the District Attorney's Office.

With those assault allegations in hand, a newly impaneled grand jury did more than recommend charges against the four men. It launched a sweeping investigation into the hierarchy's handling of clergy sex-abuse cases, picking up where the previous grand jury had left off.

The 2005 report had blasted Bevilacqua and Lynn, among others, for allegedly engaging in a "callous" and "calculating" effort to hide priests' crimes from police, and reassign them to other parishes. It singled out Lynn for lying and for intimidating victims to keep them quiet. His name appeared nearly 700 times, more than even Bevilacqua's.

But in 2005, bringing criminal charges against church leaders proved harder than criticizing their behavior.

Prosecutors scoured the statutes, initially pinning their hopes on the one titled "Direct Liability for Endangering Welfare of Children." But it was too narrow for their purposes.

As the grand jury report noted, the statute "confine[d] its coverage to parents, guardians or other persons 'supervising the welfare of a child.' " Bevilacqua and Lynn, it said, were "too far removed" to be indicted.

In 2011, however, prosecutors turned to that law to charge Lynn.

Assistant District Attorney Mariana Sorensen, lead author of both grand jury reports, said that this time her office "had felony charges against three current or former priests who had been under Lynn's oversight as secretary for clergy."

While no such direct links could be established for Bevilacqua, the grand jury was able to draw lines from Lynn to prosecutable crimes, and from there to a newly "clarified" child-endangerment law, Sorensen said.

In 2006, legislators had inserted new language into the law specifying that employers and supervisors could be criminally charged if their underlings sexually assaulted minors in their care.

Lynn's lawyers say those changes created new law, which cannot be applied retroactively to anything Lynn might have done in the 1990s. Lynn has denied any wrongdoing and is expected to plead not guilty at Thursday's preliminary hearing.

"Criminal law as it exists [in Pennsylvania] is not sufficient to sustain any of the allegations against Msgr. Lynn," said his attorney, Jeffrey M. Lindy.

Sorensen declined to debate the matter. Such arguments, she said, miss a "moral point."

"The archdiocese is apparently not denying a single fact about Lynn placing known abusers in harm's way," she wrote in an e-mail to The Inquirer. "Instead they're making a purely legalistic argument that has nothing to do with what parishioners care about: whether children were, in fact, endangered."

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or

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