Monsignor’s role at issue as trial opens

Posted: March 26, 2012

A landmark trial over clergy sex abuse within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia opened Monday with jurors asked to answer a central question:

Was Msgr. William J. Lynn trying to protect children - or the church?

For a dozen years, Lynn was the archdiocesan official responsible for fielding and reviewing complaints about sexually abusive priests.

Prosecutors told jurors he was more concerned with sparing the church and his fellow priests from scandal than getting to the truth, helping abuse victims or warning the public.

"You can't protect the church without keeping the allegations in the dark," Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Coelho said. "He kept the parishioners in the dark and he kept the faithful in the dark."

But Lynn's lawyer provided a starkly different potrait. Despite being given an uncomfortable duty, Lynn sought to isolate abusive priests and highlight the problem for his superiors, lawyer Thomas Bergstrom said.

"There isn't anybody in this courthouse that would deny the sexual abuse of children is awful. Monsignor Lynn knew it was awful," Bergstrom told jurors. "The evidence will show that he - and perhaps he, alone - is the one who tried to correct it."

The opening statements came after lawyers for Lynn and his codefendant, the Rev. James J. Brennan, lost a bid to seek a new jury or delay the trial.

The proceedings were delayed nearly 90 minutes while Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina and attorneys met individually with the jurors to make sure none had been unduly influenced by news that a third defendant, defrocked priest Edward V. Avery, pleaded guilty last week.

When it ended, the panel of 22 jurors and alternates had dropped to 20. The judge did not explain why, but she did instruct jurors not to speculate about Avery.

"You are not to consider Avery's absence in any way," Sarmina said.

Lynn, the secretary for clergy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004, is the first Catholic church supervisor to face trial for allegedly enabling or protecting abusive priests. He is charged with felony endangerment and conspiracy.

Brennan is accused of similar charges and of allegedly molesting a 14-year-old boy in 1996.

Avery pleaded guilty Thursday to conspiracy and sexually assaulting a 10-year-old Northeast Philadelphia altar boy in 1999. He was sentenced to 2 ½ to 5 years in prison.

Two other men charged in the case - one a priest and the other a former Catholic schoolteacher - will be tried separately.

Courthouse administrators have reserved dozens of seats to accommodate local and national media for the trial. Sarmina has banned cell phones or other electronic devices from the courtroom, and will require spectators to pass through metal detectors.


Staff writer Liz Gormisky contributed to this article.


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

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