Bucks priest: Complaints about fellow cleric led to punishment

Posted: May 03, 2012

In 1996, the Rev. Michael C. Picard was accused of disobedience and brought up on the ecclesiastical equivalent of a court-martial for besmirching the name of a fellow priest to prevent him from becoming an associate pastor at Picard’s growing Bucks County parish.

On Wednesday, the tables turned.

Picard sat in the witness box of a Philadelphia courtroom 15 feet from Msgr. William J. Lynn, whom he accused of falsifying the disobedience charge because Picard had tried to stop the reassignment of a problematic priest.

Through Picard’s words, and reams of internal correspondence from the secret archives of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington portrayed now-Msgr. Picard as a whistleblower. Lynn and church superiors, including the late Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, had retaliated against Picard in an effort to tamp down the threat of public scandal over the 1996 assignment of the Rev. Donald J. Mills to Picard’s St. Andrew parish in Newtown, the prosecutor said.

As secretary of clery from 1992 to 2004, Lynn was Bevilacqua’s designated investigator of allegations of sexual abuse against priests. Now 61, he is charged with conspiracy and endangering the welfare of children for enabling some priests to be transferred to other parishes despite accusations of improprieties.

Lynn, the highest-ranking church official criminally charged in the church sex-abuse scandal, has denied the charges. His attorneys have argued that he was thrust into the job without legal training and was often the first to stop what has been described as a revolving-door policy of reassigning deviant priests.

Picard, ordained in 1966 and pastor of St. Andrew’s for 23 years, told the Common Pleas Court jury that he was “devastated” when on June 28, 1996, he was called to Bevilacqua’s residence and realized he was about to be disciplined for disobeying an assignment made by the cardinal.

Picard denied allegations in Lynn’s internal memos that he refused to accept Mills’ appointment as an assistant at St. Andrew’s.

“I told him [Lynn] that there was a serious problem that needed to be looked into,” Picard testified, “and that we needed to resolve problems instead of transferring problem priests around.”

“And what was Lynn’s response?” Blessington asked.

“That’s not my job,” Picard replied.

Thomas A. Bergstrom, an attorney for Lynn, accused Picard in his cross-examination of gossiping with fellow priests and “whispering down the lane that maybe Don Mills was gay.” Bergstrom argued that three days after he first contacted Lynn about Mills’ assignment, Lynn countermanded the assignment and sent Mills to St. Mary parish in Schwenksville, Montgomery County.

“You accomplished what you set out to, didn’t you?” Bergstrom asked.

“No,” said Picard, noting that he wanted Mills to get psychological counseling before his next assignment. “I was doing something to try to improve the situation so he wouldn’t be transferred around the diocese.”

According to trial testimony, the archdiocese was transferring Mills to St. Andrew’s after a tumultuous tenure as assistant pastor at St. Katherine of Siena in the city’s Torresdale section. The pastor there, Msgr. James P. McBride, complained to Lynn that Mills was “mean to parishioners,” “scolded them from the pulpit,” and refused to work with youth groups.

McBride said the same things to Picard when the Newtown priest called to get an assessment of his new assistant.

Picard testified that McBride also told him that Mills had a close relationship with another man and was suspected to be gay. Picard testified that he relayed all this information to Lynn in a phone call protesting Mills’ assignment and later put it in writing — although he omitted the reference to suspected homosexuality because he feared destroying Mills’ reputation.

In his correspondence and other internal memos regarding the controversy, Lynn told Picard that there were no serious complaints about Mills in internal files; he also never mentioned the homosexuality rumors. In writing to Picard about Mills’ new assignment to Schwenksville, Lynn blamed Picard for gossiping about Mills with other priests and church staff and “almost destroying his reputation.”

Mills went on a health-care leave in 1999 from the Schwenksville parish. He died in 2006 of cancer.

Picard said Bevilacqua reprimanded him and ordered him to go on a two-week retreat at his own expense and think about what he had done, while reminding Picard that he could have lost his parish assignment.

The incident appeared to have stunted Picard’s career in the church. Executive director of the Cardinal’s Commission on Human Relations in the 1980s, he remained a priest at St. Andrew. He was not honored with the title monsignor until December 2009, long after many of his contemporaries had been.

At the ceremony, Picard said, Lynn approached him and offered a congratulatory comment: “Everyone deserves to get out of the penalty box.”

Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or follow him on Twitter @JoeSlobo

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