In closing arguments, Lynn’s actions called brave, shameful

Posted: June 01, 2012

As the official in charge of investigating clergy sex abuse for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Msgr. William J. Lynn bravely "put a spotlight" on the shame of the Catholic church, his lawyer said Thursday.

A prosecutor called Lynn’s actions something else: just shameful.

"He and everyone else who protected pedophile priests were murdering the souls of children," Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington said.

The conflicting portraits emerged during a day of closing arguments in the landmark prosecution for Lynn and the Rev. James J. Brennan. The Common Pleas Court jury of six men and six women is scheduled to begin deliberations Friday.

The summations capped an 11-week child endangerment and abuse trial that included more than 60 witnesses — including Lynn and almost two dozen alleged abuse victims. Jurors also saw nearly 2,000 documents, most from secret church archives, that showed accused clerics being shuffled among parishes. Many were records Lynn drafted or reviewed during a 12-year tenure as Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua’s adviser on clergy sex abuse.

Thomas Bergstrom, one of four attorneys representing Lynn, told jurors that the former clergy secretary was being unfairly held accountable for the sins of the church.

"You have witnessed evil in this courtroom. You have seen the dark side of the church, and you have seen grown men come into this courtroom and weep because they were abused," he said. "If we cannot feel their pain, then we are broken."

Lynn also felt the pain, Bergstrom said, but did not cause it and should not pay for it. He said prosecutors mounted a misguided case against the one church official who tried to identify and remove abusive priests.

"This man, who never touched a child but documented the evil that other men did," Bergstrom said, raising his voice and pointing toward his client. "He held more than a candle to their shame. He put a spotlight on their shame."

Blessington didn’t shy away from the suggestion that Lynn’s prosecution represented something larger .

"We’re all the victims have," he told jurors. "We’ve got one shot for justice, and this is it."

Lynn, 61, is accused of one count of conspiracy and two counts of endangering children for allegedly recommending that his codefendant, Brennan, 48, and another priest, Edward Avery, be allowed to live or work in parishes despite suspecting they would abuse children.

Now defrocked, Avery pleaded guilty before trial to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old altar boy in 1999, seven years after Lynn first fielded an abuse allegation against him.

Bergstrom said there was no proof to support the charge that Avery and Lynn conspired to endanger the altar boy. And the lawyer said Lynn can be guilty of endangerment only if jurors believe he either failed to act or took actions "so lame and meager" that it was practically certain to place a child in danger. He showed them memos between Lynn and therapists that outlined Avery’s treatment and aftercare.

Lynn could recommend actions, his lawyer said, but only the cardinal could act.

"If [Lynn] had the power and the authority, he wouldn’t need to recommend — he simply would have done it," Bergstrom said.

Blessington, who spent more than two days grilling Lynn during cross-examination, said blame-the-bosses was just one in a rotation of defenses Lynn’s lawyers had feebly tried to argue. The others included citing canon law as an obstacle, or claiming that Lynn was doing the best job he could, given the rules.

The prosecutor described Lynn as "the coach, quarterback, and general manager rolled into one," the only church official who was responsible for fielding abuse complaints and doing something — or nothing — about them.

Lynn kept his job for more than a decade, Blessington said, because he was good at it.

"He stayed there as long as he did because he was willing to carry out the program, he was willing to keep the secrets," the prosecutor railed.

The arguments drew an overflow crowd of Lynn’s supporters, reporters, victims advocates, and others. As different were their arguments, so were the attorneys’ styles.

Bergstrom stood for an hour at a lectern in the middle of the courtroom, glancing at notes scrawled on sheets of yellow legal paper. He cited Shakespeare and Twelve Angry Men, and at times spoke so softly it seemed as if he was sharing a secret just with jurors.

Blessington stood closer to the jury box and addressed the panel for twice as long. He paced, yelled, and buried his hands in his face, and relied on an outline or evidence typed on white sheets. He quoted Winston Churchill and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but punctuated his arguments with sayings from his boyhood Philadelphia neighborhood.

"He’s spitting on you and telling you it’s raining," the prosecutor told jurors, suggesting Lynn lied to them, victims, and parishioners. "He’s insulting your intelligence. Don’t let him get away with it."

Both men highlighted memos about some of 20 other accused priests who were never charged but whose actions became a focus of the trial. Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina allowed prosecutors to introduce the past allegations as evidence that Lynn understood the scope of the abuse problem and that his actions on Avery and Brennan followed a long-standing pattern by church leaders.

Bergstrom highlighted a half-dozen memos that suggested Lynn recommended a priest be removed within days or weeks of being accused. He acknowledged that the only instance when an accused priest re-offended under Lynn’s watch was when Avery assaulted the altar boy.

"And what did he say about that? He said I’m sorry for that," the lawyer told jurors

Blessington said apologies aren’t enough, especially for Avery’s victim. He also said jurors need only to conclude that Lynn was an accomplice or participant in a broader scheme that endangered children, not that he was at the top of the chain.

Lynn, he noted, included Avery on a secret 1994 list he compiled of area priests who were guilty of sexual misconduct.

The prosecutor read only one full document to jurors, a love letter that the Rev. Michael Murtha drafted to a seventh-grade boy at St. Anselm’s Church in 1995. In it, Murtha fantasizes about oral sex and sadistic acts with the boy.

The priest never sent the letter. Lynn recommended Murtha be sent for treatment and later arranged for his transfer to other parishes with schools.

"That was so wrong," Blessington told the jurors. "You cannot take that kind of risk. ... And he did it all the time."

He acknowledged the evidence against Brennan was less comprehensive. Brennan is accused of trying to rape a 14-year-old boy he knew in 1996 during a sleepover at Brennan’s West Chester apartment. At the time, the priest was on a leave of absence from the archdiocese.

"He’s a vagabond, a wandering soul, but he’s not a pedophile," his lawyer, William J. Brennan, told the jury.

The lawyer, who is unrelated to his client, argued that the priest’s accuser and his family concocted the claim to win a payout from the church.

"They are dead broke and they are desperate," William Brennan said. "And desperate people do desperate things."

The prosecutor countered the man’s version of the abuse has never wavered. Blessington said the accuser, a Bucks County resident who testified at the trial, didn’t file a lawsuit seeking damages until 15 years after the incident. He also asked jurors to consider why the victim, if he was lying, chose to target Brennan and didn’t create a more elaborate and gut-wrenching story.

"If he was that evil, how hard would it be?" Blessington said.

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

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