Archdiocese suspends top attorney

Posted: March 17, 2012

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia on Friday suspended its top lawyer, less than two weeks before a trial that could shine a spotlight on the role he and other church lawyers played in the handling of decades of child-sex-abuse allegations.

In an e-mail to employees and pastors, archdiocesan officials said general counsel Timothy R. Coyne was placed on administrative leave but did not say why.

Coyne could not be reached late Friday. Representatives for Archbishop Charles J. Chaput declined to comment.

"This is a personnel issue, and we won't be discussing it publicly," spokesman Kenneth Gavin said.

Coyne had been in-house counsel for the church for at least six years. Before that, he worked at Stradley, Ronon, Stevens & Young L.L.P., the Philadelphia law firm that for years handled legal matters for the archdiocese.

Chaput cut ties to Stradley Ronon last fall, hiring separate firms to represent the church in criminal and civil matters.

He kept Coyne in his post.

But the general counsel and his decisions had come under more scrutiny.

The grand jury report that led to endangerment and child-sex-abuse charges against four priests suggested Coyne was slow to turn over documents regarding one abuse allegation. Prosecutors in that trial, which starts March 26, have complained about similar delays in getting documents from the archdiocese.

Last month, attorneys for the lead defendant, former Secretary for Clergy Msgr. William J. Lynn, disclosed that Coyne waited until this year to turn over records he found in 2006 that suggested that Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua once ordered aides to shred a memo identifying 35 priests suspected of sexual misconduct with minors.

That memo and other decisions by church lawyers are likely to play a role at the trial.

Lynn, who investigated misconduct complaints against priests and recommended their assignments, is accused of conspiracy and child endangerment for allegedly enabling or covering up clergy sex abuse. His attorneys have signaled they may argue he was following the advice of church lawyers.

The trial judge, Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, has ordered the archdiocese to be ready to hand over hundreds or thousands of documents, including correspondence between church officials and their lawyers. She is expected to hear arguments on the issue and decide it next week.


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

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