By Erik Eckholm and Jon Hurdle (New York Times)
March 26, 2012
The landmark trial of a senior official of the Philadelphia Archdiocese who is accused of shielding priests who sexually abused children and reassigning them to unwary parishes began on Monday with prosecutors charging that the official "paid lip service to child protection and protected the church at all costs."
The defendant, Msgr. William J. Lynn, 61, is the first Roman Catholic supervisor in the country to be tried on felony charges of endangering children and conspiracy — not on allegations that he molested children himself, but that he protected suspect priests and reassigned them to jobs where they continued to rape, grope or otherwise abuse boys and girls.
One of Monsignor Lynn's lines of defense was indicated in an opening statement when his lawyers suggested that he had acted responsibly and reported allegations of abuse to higher officials, including a recently deceased cardinal.
The trial is a milestone, legal experts said, in the legal battles lasting decades over sex abuse by priests. For years, many Catholic dioceses have been battered by civil suits seeking monetary damages for failing to stop errant priests. More recently, prosecutors have brought criminal charges against abusers.
"What has not happened up to now is for church officials to be held criminally accountable," said Timothy D. Lytton, a professor of law at the Albany Law School and an expert on Catholic abuse cases.
Whatever the outcome, he said, this trial "will dramatically increase the pressure on diocese officials to fulfill the church's promises to be more transparent and accountable."
More immediately, the trial promises to further roil the 1.5 million-member Philadelphia Archdiocese, which was convulsed by grand jury reports in 2005 and 2011 alleging that it had not responded forcefully to dozens of credible abuse complaints and had allowed known offenders to have continued contact with children.
From 1992 to 2004, Monsignor Lynn, who maintains he is innocent, was secretary of the clergy in the archdiocese, directing priests' job assignments and handling complaints about their behavior.
An assistant district attorney, Jacqueline Coelho, told the jury that Monsignor Lynn had repeatedly played down credible reports of child abuse, stashing them away in secret files.
"The victims are met with skepticism, and the priests are believed at all costs," Ms. Coelho said in a 58-minute opening statement in Common Pleas Court.
The scathing grand jury report released in January 2011, which led to the charges, described examples in which Monsignor Lynn "knowingly allowed priests who had sexually abused minors to be assigned to positions where unsuspecting parents and teachers would entrust children to their care."
The report alleged that Monsignor Lynn had acted with the leader of the archdiocese at the time — Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, who died in January — to shield the archdiocese from scandal and financial liability.
As the trial began, Monsignor Lynn, sitting between two lawyers and dressed in a black suit with a clerical collar, answered "not guilty" to all charges. He could face up to 28 years in prison if convicted of the two counts of endangerment and two counts of conspiracy.
Thomas Bergstrom, a defense lawyer, said in his opening statement on Monday that his client had reported abuse allegations to senior, clergy including Cardinal Bevilacqua.
"Everything that Monsignor Lynn did with respect to the allegations of abuse was put in writing and sent up the chain," Mr. Bergstrom said.
He also attacked prosecution assertions that Monsignor Lynn had been responsible for appointing suspect priests to positions where they could prey on more children. "The only man in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that could appoint a priest to any location is Cardinal Bevilacqua," Mr. Bergstrom said.
Mr. Bergstrom also said the cardinal had directed the shredding of a list of suspected or actual sex offenders Monsignor Lynn obtained from a "secret archive file."
The trial is likely to feature the videotaped testimony of Cardinal Bevilacqua, who died of cancer and dementia at age 88.
The 2011 grand jury report stated that Monsignor Lynn "was carrying out the cardinal's policies exactly as the cardinal directed," but that because of gaps in evidence and Cardinal Bevilacqua's ill health, "we have reluctantly decided not to recommend charges" against him.
Prosecutors have not ruled out further indictments of senior church officials.
Monsignor Lynn is being tried together with a priest, the Rev. James J. Brennan, 49, who is charged with the attempted rape of a 14-year-old boy in 1996, after Monsignor Lynn failed to act on complaints about Father Brennan. Father Brennan also pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer questioned the accuser's credibility.
The trial originally was to include a third defendant, Edward V. Avery, 69, a defrocked priest who was charged with raping a 10-year-old altar boy in 1999, years after Mr. Avery had been reported for sexual abuse and had been treated at a hospital for sex offenders, facts that Monsignor Lynn allegedly knew. Last week, Mr. Avery pleaded guilty to rape and conspiracy was sentenced to two and a half to five years in prison.
As the trial began, Judge M. Teresa Sarmina warned the jury of six men and six women to disregard Mr. Avery's absence. It was not clear if his guilty plea would figure in the trial.
Prosecutors intend to present more than 20 other examples of abuse charges that they assert were mishandled by the archdiocese. The trial is expected to last for at least two months.
In October, the bishop of the Kansas City Diocese was indicted on a misdemeanor charge, accused of failing to report suspected child abuse. The bishop, Robert W. Finn, allegedly waited six months to tell the police that a priest had been taking lewd photographs of girls. A trial is scheduled for September, although on Tuesday a judge will consider the bishop's motion to dismiss the charges.
The felony trial of Monsignor Lynn, alleging a systematic cover-up of abuses over many years, appears likely to have a far broader impact on the church, said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, an advocacy and support group known as SNAP.
"To see one of their peers facing jail time for what he has done over many years to endanger kids," he said, "has the possibility of sending a much more alarming message to current and former Catholic officials across the country."
Erik Eckholm reported from New York, and Jon Hurdle from Philadelphia.