Church scandal hits close to home

Msgr. William J. Lynn leaving the Criminal Justice Center on June 18. He was assistant pastor at the writers parish years ago. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Msgr. William J. Lynn leaving the Criminal Justice Center on June 18. He was assistant pastor at the writers parish years ago. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Posted: July 02, 2012

The Father Lynn I knew was no monster.

I actually liked him.

I explained as much to my editors at The Inquirer when they assigned me last year to cover the landmark prosecution of Msgr. William J. Lynn over his handling of child-sex abuse complaints within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Lynn had been my assistant pastor at St. Katharine of Siena in Wayne 30 years ago.

He gave me Communion and heard my confessions, and did the same with my parents and siblings. He supervised our parish Catholic Youth Organization when I was a CYO officer and routinely gave me keys to the parish gym so my friends and I could play basketball on summer nights. He was chaplain at Archbishop Carroll High School when I was a senior.

The Lynn I remember was a plump, affable guy who smiled a lot when he talked. I even recall a few of our conversations, including when a friend and I asked why he became a priest. Lynn said he had a calling he tried to ignore — but couldn't.

He was barely 30 then.

I had not seen him in decades, but I alerted my editors in case any thought our past ties might constitute a conflict of interest. None did.

In fact, several colleagues shared their own links or encounters with priests tainted in the scandal.

That's one of the things that struck me about this case: I can't recall a story where so many people had so few degrees of separation.

It is nearly impossible to have been raised Catholic in this region and not know or have crossed paths with someone touched by the abuse — a victim, a priest, an investigator, an advocate.

In the last decade, nearly 100 archdiocesan priests have been publicly accused, suspended, or defrocked. Many had multiple assignments, some in a half-dozen or more parishes or schools.

As often as not, those assignments were in disparate locations, better to avoid serendipitous and uncomfortable encounters between accused priests and their accusers. If I were to plot on a map every parish where these priests served, I'd expect to see a blanket of red pushpins.

And there is no doubt we are a community of parishes.

After arriving from Denver last fall, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput noted how tightly Philadelphians cling to their parish identities. Ask Catholics here about their roots, he said, and they are more likely to mention a church or grade school than a neighborhood.

I understood that. My high school drew students from four counties, stretching from Philadelphia to Malvern. But we defined one another by parishes. If the question was "Where you from?" the answer wasn't "Narberth" or "Paoli" or "King of Prussia." It was "St. Margaret's," "St. Norbert's," or "Mother of Divine Providence."

Over the years, each saw its share of priests. Many moves reflected the ebb and flow of retirements, promotions, and needs of a major diocese. Others, we now know, were for darker reasons.

Between two grand jury reports and last year's suspension of 26 priests I recognized eight names. Four — including another high school chaplain, two assistant pastors of my youth, and the pastor at my current church — were at some point accused of misconduct involving children. The other four, including the pastor who baptized my goddaughter and rushed to the hospital to give my father last rites, were allegedly in a position to know about the abuse.

That included Lynn. In 1992, Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua named him secretary for clergy, a job that included recommending what to do with problem priests.

The 2005 and 2011 grand jury reports portrayed Lynn in the most sinister of terms, not for abusing children himself but for allegedly doing little, or at least not enough, about priests who did. They said he dragged his feet on complaints, never bothered to search for other victims — even when he knew their names — and on a few occasions suggested to accused priests they weren't at fault.

According to his memos, Lynn told them they may have been seduced.

By grade-school altar boys.

Many of the details and allegations had been aired in the first grand jury report. At the time, I lived out of the area and, probably like many Catholics, didn't read the 418-page document. When I finally delved into the issue, I recognized familiar names. And I discovered I wasn't alone.

During jury selection, at least a dozen prospective Common Pleas Court jurors who made the first cut were later excused because they realized they knew or had contact with a priest whose name might surface at trial.

Catholics filled the prosecution table, the judge's bench, and a few defense chairs. Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington, who hammered Lynn during cross-examination and delivered the commonwealth's closing argument, was a North Catholic High School grad whose uncle spent years as the driver for Cardinals John Krol and Bevilacqua.

Several journalists at the trial shared their own interactions with now-disgraced priests. Sometimes, we discovered ties we never knew.

I won't forget the day prosecutors called a middle-aged man as their next witness.

The reporter sitting next to me was stunned. "I know him," he said. They had grown up together near Norristown, he explained.

Over the next 20 minutes, the witness described being abused by his parish priest, Francis Trauger, when he was 12. He said Trauger took him to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary one weekend to play basketball and molested him in the showers.

Months later, the priest took him to the Poconos to go skiing. They ended up naked in a motel room for a night that seemed to never end, now seared in his memory. For decades, he told no one.

On the witness stand, the man spoke softly but deliberately, struggling to finish without breaking down. His testimony was haunting.

Next to me, the reporter pulled a tissue from his pocket and dabbed his eyes.

Nearly 20 other victims testified. Most were adults in their 40s, 50s, or 60s.

Others watched from afar. Routinely during the trial, I got messages from readers describing their own ties to the names and allegations they were reading in print.

"We all knew about Father Cannon," one wrote about John Cannon, a priest who sneaked into cabins at a church camp to fondle boys in the 1950s and 1960s and later agreed to a restricted ministry.

"This stuff just turns my stomach," said another after reading testimony about the late Rev. Peter Dunne, who was allowed to "retire" in the 1990s after being diagnosed as a pedophile. "He was a pastor at my parents' church."

Some professed to be victims of abuse. Others felt duped by their church.

"I went to school with Murtha. ... We are all shocked," one said about the Rev. Michael Murtha, who remained an active parish priest until 2007 after writing a sexually graphic fantasy letter to a seventh-grade altar boy 12 years earlier.

A few weighed in on Lynn, offering their own verdict long before his trial was over. Some attacked me, asserting that I must be out to destroy the church.

I was curious if Lynn thought the same, but suspect I'll never find out.

At one of his court appearances in 2011, I approached the monsignor and reintroduced myself after so many years. His face softened as he found my name and face in his memory banks. He smiled, but said he couldn't talk to me.

At the trial progressed, we occasionally passed in the hall, rarely exchanging more than a nod or cordial hello.

He had friends or relatives with him most every day. Still, Lynn usually sat grimly at the defense table. I heard from others that he was bitter, feeling he had been hung out to dry by prosecutors needing a villain and a church hierarchy he spent his life serving.

When he took the witness stand in his own defense, he said his seminary classmates called him naive for believing that the will of God flowed through the bishops. I wondered if he still believed that. And about that calling he said he couldn't ignore.

The last time I saw my former assistant pastor was June 22, the day of the verdict. The jury found him guilty of endangering children, a crime punishable by up to seven years in prison.

As Blessington and Lynn's lawyer, Jeff Lindy, traded high-decibel barbs over whether the monsignor should go straight to jail, I saw the judge steal a glance at Lynn.

Sitting at the defense table, his arms on his lap, he sat nearly motionless, staring toward the floor, as if he was somewhere else.

Behind him, friends and relatives filled the first two rows in the gallery. Some wept. He barely looked at them as he stood and two deputy sheriffs escorted him through a side door to a holding cell.

The courtroom was nearly empty when one of the officers returned from the cell minutes later. He motioned to Lynn's brother and sister. "He's all right," he assured them. "He's OK."

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

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