With church abuse trial set to open, tensions abound

Msgr. William J. Lynn, shown outside court in July, is the first Catholic church supervisor in the country to be charged with covering up child sex abuse. For 12 years, he handled the archdiocese's priest assignments. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Msgr. William J. Lynn, shown outside court in July, is the first Catholic church supervisor in the country to be charged with covering up child sex abuse. For 12 years, he handled the archdiocese's priest assignments. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer (Msgr. William J. Lynn,)
Posted: March 25, 2012

The neighborhood that rings St. Jerome's Church in Northeast Philadelphia is flush with cops and firefighters, reliable Catholics in brick homes with tidy lawns, backyard slides, and a few front-door crucifixes.

That was the backdrop last year for one of the more sordid clergy sex-abuse allegations to emerge in years. A grand jury report described a 10-year-old altar boy being confronted in St. Jerome's sacristy after Mass, ordered to strip, and engage in sex.

Not once, but three times - by two different priests - over a year in the late 1990s.

On Monday, a Philadelphia jury is scheduled to start hearing about those accusations and one that looms larger: that leaders of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia could have predicted, or prevented, the attacks but instead followed a long-held practice of protecting the church and abusers within it.

The trial of Msgr. William J. Lynn, who for 12 years led the office that recommended priests' assignments and monitored their conduct, marks the first in the nation for a church supervisor accused of covering up child sex abuse.

His arrest last year on child-endangerment charges, along with two priests and one defrocked cleric accused of molesting boys in the 1990s, stirred fresh outrage among Catholics and led officials of the 1.5 million-member archdiocese to suspend 26 priests, reexamine past claims, and vow to institute its second wave of reforms in six years.

The case has stoked national interest not because of who Lynn is but what his trial signifies. As hundreds of priests worldwide have been accused or convicted of molesting children, church leaders have consistently avoided prosecution, casting the crisis as an individual epidemic, not an institutional one.

Late last week, an eleventh-hour guilty plea from one of the defendants threatened to upend the trial. Defrocked priest Edward V. Avery admitted that he sexually assaulted the St. Jerome's boy in 1999 and that he conspired with Lynn and others to endanger minors.

Avery is not cooperating with prosecutors, but lawyers for Lynn and the third defendant, the Rev. James J. Brennan, said widespread publicity about the plea might have tainted the jury. Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina said she will rule Monday on their request for a delay to pick a new jury.

If it does go forward, the trial promises more, and potentially more jarring, revelations for Catholics, with implications beyond one cleric or one diocese.

The prospective witness list includes a deceased cardinal, Anthony J. Bevilacqua, forced from a reclusive retirement for a videotaped interrogation weeks before his death; two former Philadelphia bishops implicated in the shredding of an incriminating memo; and two men who say they were plunged into years of drug abuse and crime after being raped as boys by their parish priests.

Jurors are likely to hear a drumbeat of testimony about clerics molesting children and could see thousands of pages of never-released documents about their sexual misconduct, including personnel records so sensitive that they were locked away for years in filing cabinets known as "the secret archives."

For more than a decade, Lynn was the keeper of those files and a key officer in the local church hierarchy. Now 61, he was suspended last year from St. Joseph Church in Downingtown, where he was pastor. A guilty verdict could mean years in prison and a victory for those who have faulted the church's handling of sex-abuse allegations.

"Did a lot of bishops do very stupid things for which they should have been held accountable and they were not held accountable? Yes, absolutely," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a scholar at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. "Now this is a chance again to send the church, to send the bishops, a message by prosecuting somebody."

Lynn's lawyers have used the same theory to argue his innocence. They say the monsignor was a middle manager unfairly "hung out to dry" by prosecutors eager to blame someone for years of unchecked abuse and by bosses who scrambled, or flat-out lied, to save themselves. They say an objective review shows Lynn used "good judgment" and tried to isolate abusers from children.

Bound by a gag order, the attorneys, Thomas Bergstrom and Jeffrey Lindy, have not outlined their trial strategy or said if Lynn will testify. But at one pretrial hearing, Lindy assured the judge: "Monsignor Lynn has a story to tell."

Simply that a trial is taking place might be more significant than its outcome, said Patrick Wall, a former priest turned lawyer and victims advocate.

Since Lynn's arrest, prosecutors in seven jurisdictions from California to New York have started exploring charges against priests' superiors, according to Wall.

"Any time I've talked to a prosecutor and I've brought up Philadelphia, it gives them greater moral authority to do this," he said. "Because most D.A.s were afraid to take on the Catholic Church."

The trial comes seven years after another Philadelphia grand jury delivered a searing 418-page report that faulted archdiocesan leaders for their handling of sex-abuse claims. But that panel said it was hamstrung by laws that limited who could be charged and required sex crimes to be reported within a few years of occurring, despite advocates' assertions that victims often wait decades to come forward.

For the latest investigation, District Attorney Seth Williams relied on an expanded statute of limitations and a 2007 amendment that made supervisors in child-care settings criminally culpable for abuse.

Lynn, the subject of withering criticism by the previous grand jury, became the primary target of the next one. "We believe that legal accountability for Msgr. Lynn's unconscionable behavior is long overdue," its report said.

While secretary for clergy between 1992 and 2004, prosecutors say, Lynn endangered children by recommending abusive priests for assignments that gave them access to children. They built their case around claims by two accusers, and with help from the archdiocese itself.

In January 2009, church officials forwarded to prosecutors a complaint that its victims' assistance office received from the former St. Jerome's altar boy. He was in the fifth grade in 1998, he said, when the Rev. Charles Engelhardt caught him drinking wine in the sacristy, began talking about sex, and told the boy they would soon have "sessions" on how to be a man. Engelhardt assaulted him a week later, he said.

The boy kept silent, but the cleric might not have. Prosecutors say Avery, who also lived at the parish, told the boy months later that he had heard about the "sessions" with Engelhardt and planned his own. Twice, Avery allegedly molested the boy in the church.

According to the grand jury, Lynn knew Avery had been removed from a Mount Airy parish over a sex-abuse allegation in 1992 and sent for treatment at St. John Vianney, a church-owned hospital. Prosecutors say the monsignor had recommended that Avery live at St. Jerome's and work at nearby Nazareth Hospital, and was supposed to be monitoring Avery.

Now 69, Avery was defrocked in 2006. At least two more accusers have come forward since his arrest and could testify at the trial.

Engelhardt, 65, who belongs to the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, an independent religious order, faces a separate trial. So does Bernard Shero, a 49-year-old former teacher at St. Jerome's parish school accused of raping the same boy a year after the priests. Both argued they could not be part of an archdiocese conspiracy because they weren't under Lynn's supervision.

Brennan, 49, is charged with raping a 14-year-old boy while on leave from the archdiocese in 1996. Brennan allegedly targeted the boy after meeting him when both were at St. Andrew's Church in Newtown, Bucks County. Prosecutors say the assault occurred after Lynn failed to act on complaints about Brennan's misconduct with minors.

Defense lawyers are expected to hammer at the alleged victims' accounts. The accusers, whose names are being withheld by The Inquirer, have histories of drug use, petty crime, and mental-health treatment. Both also have lawsuits pending against the archdiocese.

Brennan's lawyer, William Brennan, who is unrelated, said Friday that his accuser had convictions for fraud, forgery, and theft - including stealing from his own family.

Lynn's attorneys have targeted the law. In one of their many bids to derail the charges, and one that could seed an appeal, they contended Lynn can't be guilty of endangering children in the 1990s because the statute didn't apply to supervisors like him until 2007.

They also have challenged a pivotal February ruling by Sarmina, the judge, who said prosecutors can tell jurors about nearly two dozen other archdiocesan priests accused of sexual abuse over the last 40 years.

None of the others is charged in the case. But prosecutors, led by Assistant District Attorneys Patrick Blessington and Mariana Sorensen, have maintained that jurors can't properly weigh Lynn's recommendations for Avery and Brennan without considering what he and other church leaders knew - and how they reacted to other complaints.

"It's always been our position that this was an archdiocese-wide policy, which in and of itself was criminal in nature," Blessington said.

The archdiocese is paying for Lynn's defense team of four lawyers because the accusations involve his job. Still, it is not clear if the church's and the monsignor's interests coincide or conflict.

Last week, Lynn's lawyers said the archdiocese had refused to turn over decade-old letters that they said could show its lawyers guided church policy and Lynn's decisions on sex-abuse allegations.

The defense team also pounced on what it portrayed as the closest thing to a smoking gun in the case: notes found in a locked safe that suggest Bevilacqua ordered aides in 1994 to shred a memo identifying 35 area priests suspected of sexual misconduct.

The lawyers say the memo, written by Lynn, proves that his bosses - the cardinal and his top assistants, Bishops Edward Cullen and Joseph Cistone - lied when they told grand jurors that Lynn made the key decisions about what to do with predatory priests.

Bevilacqua, who ran the archdiocese from 1988 until 2003, died in January after years of failing health. Still, he could be a crucial witness. In November, Sarmina ruled him competent to testify, and let lawyers grill him for seven hours during a private deposition that jurors might see.

In court filings, Lynn's attorneys portrayed the prelate as a weary, sometimes confused witness. But he also is said to have clearly denied any wrongdoing and instead implicated his former secretary for clergy.

With white hair, glasses, and a stout frame, Lynn has been the only defendant to attend nearly all the pretrial proceedings. He typically comes with his sister, with whom he has lived since being suspended. While Avery and Brennan occasionally chat or joke with their lawyers, Lynn's somber visage almost never changes.

His last public comments on the scandal came after the 2005 grand jury report, one that cited him hundreds of times, usually in a critical way. "I would never put a child in harm's way," Lynn told his parishioners from the altar. "I'm going to leave that to your judgment."

Last September, six months after his arrest, Lynn drew a standing ovation during a dinner that the archdiocese's newly installed leader, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, hosted for priests. That same month, Chaput told an interviewer: "It's really important to me, and I think to all of us, that he be treated fairly and that he not be a scapegoat."

Lynn does evoke a certain amount of compassion in church circles, according to Nicholas Cafardi, a canon lawyer in Pittsburgh and author of a book about the U.S. bishops' response to clergy sex abuse. "My read of the compassion is basically, 'He did what he was asked to do, or what he was told to do.' "

Still, Cafardi said, the monsignor faces long odds of getting compassion from a jury. "There is no sympathy," he said, "for the person in the dock in child-abuse cases."


Contact John P. Martin

at 215-854-4774 or jmartin@phillynews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JPMartinInky.

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