Jury selection begins in church sex abuse trial

Msgr. William J. Lynn supervised clergy placement.
Msgr. William J. Lynn supervised clergy placement.
Posted: February 22, 2012

Lawyers and a judge on Tuesday launched what they say could be a monthlong effort to impanel a jury to decide the fate of three Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests accused of endangering or molesting children.

About 250 prospective jurors completed the first step - a questionnaire on their backgrounds, beliefs, and ability to serve.

Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina canceled an afternoon session so she could review the first batch of surveys. She did not explain her decision, but ordered prosecutors and defense attorneys to resume the process in court Wednesday.

Both sides hope to settle on 12 jurors and 10 alternates. The trial, scheduled to begin March 26, is expected to last four months and draw national attention.

The lead defendant, Msgr. William J. Lynn, is the first church official nationwide to be charged with covering up clergy sex abuse.

Prosecutors contend that Lynn, the archdiocese's secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, endangered children by recommending priests for parish assignments despite suspecting that they might molest children.

They intend to introduce hundreds of records from the church's "secret archives" - confidential files that document allegations and investigations into misconduct and sexual abuse.

Awaiting trial with Lynn are two men he recommended for parish assignments, the Rev. James J. Brennan and Edward V. Avery, a former priest. Each is accused of molesting a boy in the late 1990s. Avery was defrocked in 2006.

A fourth cleric and a former Catholic-school teacher face similar charges but will be tried separately.

All have pleaded not guilty.

From the questionnaires, lawyers and the judge hope to whittle the jury pool, then question prospective panelists in open court.

During pretrial hearings in Lynn's case, Sarmina and the lawyers signaled that members of the jury pool won't be asked if they are Catholic, or if they believe child sex-abuse is a widespread problem in the church.

Exactly what they will be asked is unclear. Jury questionnaires in criminal trials are not public record, according to Pennsylvania code. Sarmina has issued a gag order, barring lawyers and defendants from publicly discussing the case.

Such surveys typically ask jurors about their backgrounds and any personal or economic reasons that might prevent them from being fair, including any religious or ethical beliefs.

Potential jurors also are asked often to disclose if they have relatives in law enforcement or if they have been victims of crime. And they get a list of names of the potential trial witnesses, or people whose names might surface in the case.

In Lynn's case, prosecutors have estimated they could call nearly 70 witnesses, including the men allegedly molested by Avery and Brennan.


Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 215-854-4774 or jmartin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JPMartinInky.

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