Watchdog group releases data on claims against Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests

Posted: January 24, 2013

A watchdog group that runs an online clearinghouse of clergy-sex abuse allegations began publishing Tuesday the first of 5,700 pages of documents about past claims against Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests.

The group, BishopAccountability.org, culled the documents from evidence introduced at last year's landmark child-endangerment trial of Msgr. William J. Lynn.

The records include confidential church memos, e-mails, psychological evaluations, and correspondence among archdiocese officials, accusers, and more than 20 priests who served in area parishes over the last half-century.

The allegations are not new - all were aired in two grand jury reports or at Lynn's trial - and the accused priests they mention are dead, defrocked, or removed from ministry. But the website offers the first unfiltered public look at details of those claims, and of documents locked for years in what the archdiocese called its Secret Archives.

Many were drafted by Lynn and approved by Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua or by their predecessors. They chronicle what church officials knew and did after a priest was accused of abusing a minor.

Terence McKiernan, the president of BishopAccountability, said the records add a layer of public understanding to the grand jury investigations and prosecution of Philadelphia-area priests, which he said were unlike any others in the country.

"The grand juries were based on the documents, did groundbreaking investigative work, stressed the importance of [statute of limitations] reform, and ultimately achieved the first true accountability with the Lynn conviction," McKiernan said. The records, he said, reveal "the bedrock of the process."

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had no comment on the publication of the documents, nor did District Attorney Seth Williams' office, which gathered them over a decade.

The first batch posted - about 200 records - focus on the archdiocese's handling of Edward Avery, a former priest whose case became a pillar of the prosecution against Lynn.

Jurors found that Lynn, who investigated misconduct by priests and recommended their assignments to Bevilacqua, endangered children by letting Avery remain in public ministry in the 1990s despite concluding he had molested a teenager.

The documents include memos in which Lynn recounts advising Avery to stay "low-key" after being reassigned to a Northeast Philadelphia parish, as well as a letter the mother of one of Avery's accusers wrote to Lynn in 2002, more than a year before church officials removed him.

"If he is anywhere near children, you have a problem," she wrote.

Avery pleaded guilty last year to sexually assaulting a Northeast Philadelphia altar boy in the late 1990s. He drew headlines again last week when, during the child-sex abuse trial of another priest, Avery recanted his guilty plea.

McKiernan said he spent about 40 hours reviewing the materials and redacting identifying information about victims before publishing it online. He said he expected to post documents about each Philadelphia priest every few weeks until the online library is complete. The website is www.bishop-accountability.org/docs/philadelphia

Since its 2003 inception following Boston's church scandal, BishopAccountability.org has posted thousands of searchable pages based on civil and criminal records and news reports about investigations into individuals, religious orders and archdioceses.

Readers across the country - and occasionally the world - have used documents from the website to expose accused priests. Last summer, Widener University administrators confronted a Franciscan priest who was working there as a dean after a tipster alerted the school to a decade-old allegation in a filing on BishopAccountability.org. The dean, Michael Ledoux, resigned.

The group continues to log the abuse claims because most dioceses do not, he said.

"We're about to write to the Catholic bishops and urge them to write their own lists," McKiernan said. "I honestly don't really get why they don't."


Contact John P. Martin at 215-341-2597, at jmartin@phillynews.com or @JPMartinInky on Twitter.

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