Priests' Child Sex-Abuse Trial Gets Started

By John P. Martin
Philadelphia Inquirer
March 27, 2012

The conspiracy and child-sex-abuse trial begins March 26, 2012, for two Archdiocese priests. Msgr. William Lynn, center, leaves the Criminal Justice Complex at 12th and Filbert Sts. through a mob of media after a lunch recess. His attorney Thomas Bergstrom is center.

[with video]

A landmark trial over child sex abuse by Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests opened Monday with a prosecutor and defense lawyer clashing over a central question:

Was Msgr. William J. Lynn trying to protect children or the church?

As the official responsible for investigating allegations of clergy sex-abuse around Philadelphia, he couldn't do both, Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Coelho told jurors. So Lynn, she said, chose to spare church leaders and his fellow priests from scandal at the expense of victims and the public.

"You can't protect the church without keeping the allegations in the dark," Coelho said in her opening statement. "He kept the parishioners in the dark, and he kept the faithful in the dark."

Lynn's lawyer, Thomas Bergstrom, provided a starkly different portrait. He said that as secretary for clergy between 1992 and 2004, Lynn devoted himself to comprehending the scope of clergy sex-abuse around the archdiocese and trying to isolate problem priests.

"There isn't anybody in this courthouse that would deny the sexual abuse of children is awful. Msgr. Lynn knew it was awful," Bergstrom told jurors. Lynn wasn't trying to run from the problem, Bergstrom said. "The evidence will show that he - and perhaps he alone - is the one who tried to correct it."

The contrasts emerged on the first day of the first trial of a Catholic Church official accused of covering up child sex abuse. Lynn, 61, is charged with conspiracy and child endangerment for allegedly recommending priests for assignments despite knowing or suspecting that they might molest children.

His codefendant, the Rev. James J. Brennan, is accused of conspiracy and attempting to rape a 14-year-old boy in 1996. Both started the trial by entering not-guilty pleas in front of the jury.

The lawyers delivered their statements to a packed courtroom after Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina rejected arguments by the defense that the unexpected guilty plea of a third defendant last week might have tainted the jury.

For more than an hour, Sarmina and the attorneys met individually with the 12 jurors and 10 alternates to make sure none had heard or were unduly influenced by news about the plea by defrocked priest Edward V. Avery.

Two said they had, and were excused from the panel. When the trial began, Sarmina informed the remaining jurors that Avery would not be a trial defendant, but cautioned them not to speculate why. "You are not to consider Avery's absence in any way," she said.

Coelho told the jurors they would see a mountain of confidential church documents about dozens of priests who were accused of or admitted to molesting children. Lynn, she said, was "an internal sort of police investigator" for the church, but one whose results were stashed in its "secret archives" instead of being shared with the public or police.

"Secrecy is the key to avoid scandal," she said.

Lynn's lawyer argued that the monsignor had no authority to assign or remove priests. He also sought to keep the jurors focused on what he insisted was a very narrow allegation against just two men.

"I am not here to defend the Catholic Church; I'm not here to defend the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in a grand conspiracy," said Bergstrom, whose fees are being paid by the archdiocese because the allegations involve Lynn's duties. "You know why? Because none has been charged."

Bergstrom also previewed what could be a key piece of evidence for both sides: a 1994 note that suggests Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua ordered top aides to shred a memo identifying 35 priests suspected of sexual misconduct with minors.

A copy of the memo was found years later in a church safe and turned over to lawyers in the case early this year.

One of the priests on the list was Avery. Last week, he was sentenced to 2 1/2 to five years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy and to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old Northeast Philadelphia altar boy in 1999. Prosecutors contend Lynn was supposed to be monitoring Avery after the priest was removed from another parish because of an abuse allegation.

Brennan is accused of molesting a teen during a sleepover while the priest was on a leave of absence from the archdiocese.

A grand jury report and a subsequent lawsuit had described the attack as a rape. In her opening statement, Coelho portrayed it as an attempted rape when the boy was partially clothed.

Brennan's lawyer called the priest "an innocent man" smeared by a boy he had once befriended. The lawyer, William Brennan, who is not related to the defendant, urged jurors to scrutinize the accuser, who has a criminal record that includes theft and making false reports.

"He's the type of person, the type of character, that makes up stories," William Brennan said.

The first prosecution witness, Detective Joseph Walsh, described for jurors how the clergy sex-abuse investigation in Philadelphia unfolded almost a decade ago.

Walsh said that after an abuse scandal became news in Boston, the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office began receiving calls about priests sexually abusing minors here.

That's when officials here began requesting documents from the archdiocese, the detective said. The records have since trickled in over the last decade. Walsh told jurors about one such batch of records - he didn't describe them - that investigators first asked for back in 2002.

"We actually received them three weeks ago," the detective said.



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