Abuse trial testimony cries for reform

Msgr. William Lynn
Msgr. William Lynn
Posted: April 16, 2012

Three weeks into a likely months-long landmark clergy sex-abuse trial, a Philadelphia jury already has seen the clear outlines of an alleged cover-up by Archdiocese of Philadelphia officials as far up as Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua.

One priest wasn’t removed from the ministry until he had amassed 18 assault allegations against him.

A Havertown pastor recounted how he was kept in the dark about a newly assigned priest who had written a sexually graphic love letter to a grade-school boy.

An admitted abusive priest was advised by superiors to stay “low key” around churches where his victims might spot him.

It took the archdiocese a decade to respond to one official request for records. Meanwhile, pretrial disclosures revealed that years earlier, Bevilacqua directed aides to shred a memo identifying 35 suspected predator priests.

The apparent cover-up seems to have been in full swing for decades. In that sense, the trial of Msgr. William J. Lynn, who spent a dozen years in charge of assigning Philadelphia-area priests, not only represents a legal milestone. It’s also offering textbook evidence of the need to open church records to greater scrutiny — as well as the records of any organization where child sex abuse is alleged.

Lynn is the first Catholic official nationally charged with shielding and enabling priests who preyed on children in parishes.

After two scathing grand-jury reports detailing how suspected priests were moved around the archdiocese, the Lynn trial holds out the prospect of assuring a greater degree of accountability for the scandal and the assaults that are being detailed. The jury has heard of attacks on boys and girls by nearly two dozen priests.

While not accused of abuse, Lynn has been charged with child endangerment and conspiracy. A codefendant, the Rev. James J. Brennan, is accused of the 1996 rape of a 14-year-old boy. A third defendant, defrocked priest Edward Avery, pleaded guilty to related charges before trial and will serve up to five years in prison.

Both Lynn and Brennan deny the allegations. Whatever the eventual verdicts, testimony likely will have removed all reasonable doubt as to the cover-up’s existence, and the need for reform.

So far, there have been troubling and memorable accounts of church leaders’ seeming indifference to the well-being of victims in favor of protecting the church from the consequences of being known to harbor predators.

What should be just as apparent to state lawmakers, even at this stage of the trial, is the absolute need to give victims of long-ago abuse a route to have their day in court, which is now barred by statute of limitations.

Harrisburg lawmakers need to act on proposals still being fought by the state’s Catholic bishops — most vocally by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput — that would waive civil statutes for a brief period to allow those victims to seek justice.

As done in Delaware and California, a so-called “civil window” would further expose the abusers’ dirty secrets and help lead to healing in the church, and beyond.

State legislators need not await a jury verdict to do the right thing by abuse victims.


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