Monsignor’s testimony: ‘I thought I was helping victims’

Posted: May 24, 2012

Msgr. William J. Lynn took the witness stand at his landmark trial Wednesday, asserting he "did my best" to weed out sexually abusive priests and battling with a prosecutor who painted him as a liar more concerned with protecting the church than children.

During hours of tense testimony in a Common Pleas courtroom, Lynn tried to counter charges that he spent a dozen years burying sex-abuse claims and shuffling accused priests around the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

He repeatedly told jurors that his bosses, notably Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, directed the church's response to child-sex abuse allegations, and he denied knowingly putting children in harm's way.

"I thought I was helping people," Lynn said. "I thought I was helping priests, and in those circumstances, I thought I was helping victims, as much as I could."

His decision to testify was a gamble that riveted a room packed with observers at the unprecedented trial, the first for a church official accused of covering up clergy sex abuse. Prosecutors had already read jurors hours of Lynn's grand jury testimony from a decade ago, and showed them a mountain of secret church memos and files about the abuse investigations Lynn supervised when he was Bevilacqua's secretary for clergy.

Beginning a combative cross-examination that could last another day or more, Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington peppered Lynn with questions and challenged his denials.

"Every time, you put the victims first?" the prosecutor said, incredulously.

"I believe in my heart I was, yes," Lynn said.

"It didn't work out that way, did it," Blessington quipped.

Lynn, whose job included proposing priests' assignments, is accused of endangering children by allegedly recommending that two priests be allowed to live or work in parishes despite signs they might abuse children.

His codefendant, the Rev. James J. Brennan, has denied charges he tried to rape a 14-year-old boy in 1996. The second accused priest, Edward Avery, pleaded guilty before the trial to charges that he sexually assaulted a 10-year-old altar boy in 1999.

Five years earlier, Lynn had included Avery on a list of former and active archdiocesan priests identified as guilty of sexual misconduct. Lynn knew Avery had been accused of molesting a teen in the 1970s.

He testified that he compiled the list of wayward priests for his superiors after fielding a complaint about misconduct by another parish priest, the Rev. James M. Dux. Lynn said he pulled Dux's personnel file and discovered multiple complaints against him over the years.

"I was concerned that there could be others like him, so I wanted to go through the files," he said.

Lynn said he delivered the list to Bevilacqua and his top aides, Bishop Edward M. Cullen, Msgr. James E. Molloy and the Rev. Joseph Cistone, and never saw it again. The list was discovered in a safe in the archdiocese's Center City offices in 2006 and turned over only this year.

Prosecutors have suggested Lynn drafted the list as part of a plan to defend the church against lawsuits, and that he stashed it in the safe and later lied about its whereabouts. They say it proves he knowingly let predatory priests, such as Avery, take posts with access to children.

During questioning from his lawyer, Thomas Bergstrom, the monsignor denied knowing about the safe, the list or an order by Bevilacqua to shred all copies of it.

The late cardinal frequently came up in testimony from his former aide. Lynn said it was Bevilacqua, not Molloy, as prosecutors had suggested, who instructed him in a 1991 note never to tell a priest's accuser if others have come forward with complaints.

Lynn also testified that Bevilacqua directed that any notices about an accused priest's removal or transfer from a parish should say only that they were on "health leave" - not that they had been accused of abuse. And Lynn said that, despite prosecutors' contention, he never had the power to assign, transfer or restrict priests in the archdiocese.

"Who had the authority to do those things?" Bergstrom asked.

"Only the bishop, the cardinal," Lynn replied.

As his testimony began, Lynn seemed at ease in the witness chair, a contrast to the somber expression at the defense table he has worn nearly every day since the trial opened in March. He swiveled between his lawyer and the jury box as Bergstrom asked him questions, appearing at points to wear a slight, if perhaps nervous, smile. His family and supporters, including several priests, filled four rows in the courtroom.

Lynn said he was told, not asked, about his appointment to the clergy office in 1992. At the time, he said, he thought the job was more pastoral, and required tending to the priests' needs. He said he didn't realize his duties would include investigating abuse complaints.

Lynn said he never fielded any allegation or complaint about Brennan that would have led him to conclude the priest might abuse a child. And he said that doctors at St. John Vianney, the church-run hospital where the archdiocese sent priests for evaluation and treatment, concluded that Avery had an alcohol problem, but no sexual disorder.

Once Avery was released, it was Lynn's job to find him a new assignment in the archdiocese. "I had to make a recommendation" to the cardinal, he said.

During his tenure, he investigated sex-abuse complaints against three dozen or so priests, he said, including some with multiple accusers.

He thought once or twice about quitting the job, Lynn said, but decided that wasn't in his nature.

"I never asked for an assignment," he explained. "We were always taught at the seminary that the will of God works through the bishops as far as your assignments. And I believed that."

His soft mood quickly turned when the prosecutor opened his cross-examination. Blessington cited a line from the gospel of Luke: It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to stumble.

"Isn't that what you did, you caused the little ones to stumble?" he asked the defendant.

Lynn paused.

"I did my best with what I could do," he said.

"It wasn't good enough for (Avery's victim), was it?" Blessington shot back, naming the former altar boy who testified weeks ago how Avery twice forced him to dance a strip tease and engage in oral sex in a Northeast Philadelphia church.

Lynn's face turned beet red as he glared at the prosecutor. After a long pause, he said he didn't understand the question, so Blessington repeated it.

"I did my best," he finally said. "I did the best with what I could, with the parameters that were given to me."

Blessington also hammered Lynn on his decision not to seek out or contact potential victims of Avery and other priests. Lynn said he was following the advice of church-hired psychological experts who cautioned that contacting potential victims who didn't come forward on their own could "re-victimize" them.

"So you're back to the 'following orders' defense," Blessington retorted.

The cross-examination, scheduled to resume Thursday morning, seemed to take a toll on the defendant.

After Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina dismissed the jury for the day, Lynn hobbled back to the defense table, sat down and stared silently straight ahead, his face still red, for nearly five minutes.

He then got up, walked toward the spectators, and reached into a purple patterned folder he carried. From within, he took out what appeared to be a silver religious medal and handed it back to a female relative.


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

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