Judge Dismisses Conspiracy Count against Monsignor, Priest
By Joseph A. Slobodzian and John P. Martin
May 17, 2012
After calling nearly 50 witnesses and presenting close to 1,900 documents over eight weeks, prosecutors rested their case Thursday in the landmark trial involving child sexabuse by Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests.
The team of district attorneys ended by letting jurors handle what they contend is the closest thing to a smoking gun in the case: a tattered gray folder that had been hidden away in a locked safe at archdiocesan offices for more than a decade.
Inside were handwritten and typed records, including a list that Msgr. William J. Lynn drafted in 1994 naming about three dozen priests who had admitted or were accused of sexual misconduct with minors, and other documents suggesting the church was girding against a possible wave of lawsuits
Lynn and his codefendant, the Rev. James J. Brennan, scored one victory Thursday when Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina ruled that prosecutors had failed to prove a conspiracy between the two men. She dismissed those counts.
But the judge left intact the more substantive charges: that Brennan tried to rape a 14-year-old boy in 1996, and that Lynn endangered children by letting Brennan and another priest, Edward Avery, have active roles in parishes in the 1990s despite knowing or suspecting they would abuse minors. (Avery has pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old altar boy in 1999.)
In a preview of what could be a closing argument for the commonwealth, Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington told the judge that Lynn’s actions reflected a broader conspiracy within the church hierarchy.
“It was all about the good of Mother Church,” he said, after jurors had been released for the weekend. “They cared about money, they cared about the business of the church, not the flock and not the parishioners.”
The gray folder and the list within dominated the prosecution’s final week. Lynn had described the list to a grandjury investigating clergy sex abuse in 2004, but said he couldn’t find it.
It turned up this year in the archdiocese’s center city offices. Along with it, church lawyers turned over another handwritten memo stating that Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua had ordered all copies of the list shredded.
What the documents represent, and who hid them, are central questions the Common Pleas Court jury will be asked to decide.
Prosecutors have suggested that the folder was Lynn’s and that the list proves he let priests remain in active ministry despite knowing or suspecting them of abusing minors.
In a glimpse of the defense case that will begin Tuesday, one of Lynn’s lawyers, Thomas Bergstrom, pointed out that the folder also included a memo shared between Bevilacqua and Lynn’s other bosses, Vicar for Administration Edward P. Cullen and Cullen’s assistant, Msgr. James E. Molloy.
Lynn wasn’t cited as a recipient of the memo, Bergstrom noted during his cross-examination of the final prosecution witness, Detective Joseph Walsh of the District Attorney’s Office.
“Those are the names on the memo,” Walsh conceded, adding, “I don’t know if those are the last people to have the memo.”
Bergstrom also took issue with Walsh’s interpretation of handwritten notes in the folder about a lawyer, Stephen Rubino, who in the 1990s had filed lawsuits for sued for abuse victims.
Walsh told jurors that a note scrawled above a magazine article on the lawyer said “Recon,” or reconnaissance, suggesting that church officials were creating a dossier on a possible adversary. But when Bergstrom magnified the word for jurors, it looked more like “Ricoa” or, he said, an acronym for an anti-racketeering law cited in the story.
Walsh also acknowledged that a handwritten memo about the lawyer’s background and style appeared to be written not by Lynn but the Rev. James Beisel, his assistant at the time.
Beisel is expected to be one of the witnesses called by the defense next week. Bergstrom and defense lawyer Jeffrey Lindy, told the judge they plan to call other priests who worked with Lynn in the clergy office, character witnesses and a representative from St. John Vianney, the church-owned hospital where priests accused of abusing minors were sent for evaluation and treatment.
The unresolved “wild card” in their defense strategy is whether or not to call Lynn, Bergstrom said. “We’re not there yet,” he told the judge.
Lynn, 61, is the first church official nationwide to be tried for allegedly covering up clergy sex abuse.
His defense is likely to last three days, with Brennan’s beginning the following week.
Brennan’s lawyer told the judge he may ask to show a piece of the videotaped deposition of Bevilacqua taken two months before he died. Prosecutors have signaled they will oppose the move.
Contact John P. Martin at 215-854-4774 or at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him @JPMartinInky on Twitter.