Defense rests in clergy abuse trial

Msgr. William J. Lynn wrapped up his testimony on Tuesday. His codefendant, the Rev. James J. Brennan, chose not to testify.
Msgr. William J. Lynn wrapped up his testimony on Tuesday. His codefendant, the Rev. James J. Brennan, chose not to testify. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff)
Posted: May 31, 2012

The defense in the clergy sex-abuse trial rested Tuesday after Msgr. William J. Lynn ended three days' contentious testimony the way he began - asserting he had done his best to protect children but had lacked the power to do more.

"I did much more than had been done before I got there," Lynn said, later adding: "I have many victims that told me I helped them."

After the former Archdiocese of Philadelphia clergy secretary left the witness stand, the landmark trial moved briskly toward a conclusion.

Lawyers for Lynn and his codefendant, the Rev. James J. Brennan, called their final witnesses - friends, relatives, parishioners, priests, and nuns who praised the defendants as law-abiding citizens.

Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina told jurors to return Thursday for closing arguments. Deliberations could begin by the end of the week.

Nearly 60 witnesses have testified during the 11-week trial.

Voices the jury did not get to hear could be critical as well. Brennan chose not to testify, gambling that prosecutors failed to prove their contention that he had tried to rape a 14-year-old boy in 1996.

And neither prosecution nor defense lawyers asked to show jurors the seven-hour videotaped deposition of the late Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua or call to the stand two of his former aides, Bishops Edward Cullen and Joseph Cistone. According to a memo shown in court, both men allegedly knew about Bevilacqua's order to shred a central piece of evidence - a 1994 list that identified Philadelphia-area priests suspected of abusing minors.

Lynn, who investigated clergy sex-abuse complaints and recommended actions against accused priests, compiled the list. He contends that he did it to get a handle on the problem of predator priests, but that his superiors, specifically Bevilacqua, ultimately shaped church policy and decided where problem priests would serve.

Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington continued to scoff, sometimes loudly, at that suggestion. He and Lynn barely acknowledged each other as they returned to their courtroom seats Tuesday morning, then picked up where they had left off in cross-examination five days earlier - battling and usually disagreeing over what Lynn meant or intended in dozens of confidential church memos he wrote about priests accused of sexual misconduct.

Blessington called Lynn "the eyes and the ears" of the cardinal, and a man in "a powerful position" to understand the scope of abuse but who failed to do anything about it.

The prosecutor focused on the most substantive and potentially damning evidence in the child endangerment case: Lynn's recommendation that the Rev. Edward Avery be allowed to live and celebrate Mass at St. Jerome's Church in Northeast Philadelphia in the mid-1990s - a recommendation made after learning that Avery had molested a teen two decades earlier.

Avery pleaded guilty before trial to sexually assaulting an altar boy at St. Jerome's in 1999. Didn't members of that parish deserve to know his history before he arrived? the prosecutor asked.

"Yes, I think they would," Lynn replied.

"But you lied instead," Blessington charged.

"Yes, I lied," Lynn said. "Because at that point I was not permitted to say why someone was removed from their parish."

The prosecutor also suggested that Lynn had acted to remove the Rev. Michael McCarthy in 1993 only because the wife of a generous church donor had complained that McCarthy was running a travel agency from his Norristown rectory. Blessington noted that McCarthy was named a pastor in 1992 despite abuse accusations against him in 1986 and 1991.

Lynn denied the donations played any role in his decisions and said he was acting because another priest had complained about McCarthy.

He also said that the complaints against McCarthy came in before he became secretary for clergy and that Bevilacqua and Cullen were the ones who let McCarthy stay a pastor.

"I didn't have the power to do anything," Lynn testified.

In a flash of drama, Brennan's lawyer, William J. Brennan, erupted in anger and was cited for contempt late Tuesday by the judge after a prosecutor said for the first time in front of the jury that his client is no longer allowed to call himself a priest. The outburst led to a closed-door meeting with the judge and lawyers, but no explanation.

The Rev. Brennan was the defendant in a 2008 internal church trial, but its outcome is unclear. The archdiocese website describes him only as a priest with restricted ministry.

Church officials and the lawyers have repeatedly declined to comment because of a gag order.

Also Tuesday, Sarmina denied a new bid by defense lawyers to dismiss as beyond the statute of limitations an endangerment charge against Lynn and Brennan. Prosecutors called it a "Hail Mary" attempt to revisit legal ground already decided by the judge.


Contact John P. Martin

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

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