Monica Yant Kinney: Dysfunction among the vicars of Christ

Posted: April 01, 2012

Several times during the first week of a landmark criminal trial involving sex abuse and cover-ups by priests, a top official at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was described as a glorified human resources manager.

As secretary for clergy, Msgr. William J. Lynn oversaw priests' arrivals, departures, successes, struggles, and sins. His attorney, Thomas Bergstrom, called the high-ranking position "awful" and "ugly." Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Coelho compared Lynn to a police officer in Internal Affairs assigned to spy on fellow cops.

Lawyers likened the archdiocese to both a corporation and the military. Based on witness testimony and internal documents introduced as evidence, the archdiocese came off as dysfunctional as The Office, but minus the laughs of MASH.

Priests, Coelho told jurors in her opening statement, are "different . . . elevated." You can't just apply and be hired for a job as "God's representative on earth." But once ordained, almost anything goes.

Former Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua was the feared CEO/four-star general, yet evidence shows priests had reason to feel untouchable. Historically, until the sex scandal exploded in 2002, they knew they would have a job for life just for promising to pray, obey, and stay celibate.

A scapegoat blames boss

The church stands accused of no crime. But in the weeks ahead, as jurors consider an attempted-rape charge against the Rev. James J. Brennan and ask whether Lynn protected predators at the expense of children, the archdiocese may be exposed as a cynical, conflicted institution.

Witness the no-win nature of Lynn's job as secretary for clergy.

"You can't protect kids without bringing charges to light," Coelho told jurors, but "you can't protect the church without keeping those allegations in the dark."

In what must be an awkward situation, Lynn's attorneys are being paid by the archdiocese to defend a scapegoat who is blaming his dead boss, Bevilacqua.

As for the infamous locked "secret archives" whose ghastly contents shape the case? Bergstrom said the archdiocese's shrouding of priestly misdeeds predated Lynn by decades: "They've been there for 100 years."

No fear of repercussions

Priests accept their calling knowing they must honor hierarchy, yet evidence has already shown many of "God's representatives" acted with audacious autonomy.

Only a man confident in his position would shirk his duties, adopt Hmong children, and moonlight in college bars as a DJ, as did the defrocked Rev. Edward Avery.

Only a priest with zero fear of repercussions would lie about ordering gay porn on a parish TV, as the Rev. Michael Murtha did even as his pastor presented evidence in the form of a Comcast bill.

And only a cleric bothered by and resigned to his profession's aversion to conflict would investigate a colleague who was collecting sadomasochistic pornography, then refuse to confront the priest, who lived in the room next door.

"It was immoral. It was personal," said the Rev. Joe Okonski. "I didn't feel I was the person to address him on that matter."

In the first week of the trial, perhaps no priest appeared as arrogant as the Rev. Francis Trauger, who in 1981 admitted to "massaging" boys he took on overnight trips but who continued to blissfully bounce around archdiocesan assignments.

In 1991, Trauger stalked a 15-year-old perusing homosexual magazines in a bookstore, then hunted the young man down at St. John Neumann High School by pretending he was searching for a former pupil whose name he'd forgotten.

The man, now 36, testified that Trauger yanked him from class and into a conference room, where Trauger told him to pray.

"He undid my belt, he unbuttoned and unzipped my pants," the victim recalled. When an urgent knock on the locked door interrupted the abuse, Trauger uttered a line from the archdiocesan playbook:

"Don't say anything."


Contact Monica Yant Kinney

at 215-854-4670, myant@phillynews.com, or follow @myantkinney on Twitter. Read her blog at philly.com/blinq.

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