Top Priest: "Did Best I Could"

By Peter Loftus
Wall Street Journal
May 24, 2012

A monsignor accused of covering up allegations that Roman Catholic priests sexually abused children testified at his trial Wednesday he had limited authority to take action against the priests he supervised, and was carrying out directions from his superiors.

"I did the best I could within the parameters that were given to me," said Msgr. William Lynn, who served as secretary for clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004, a job that involved investigating abuse complaints against priests.

Msgr. William Lynn of Philadelphia faces child-endangerment charges.

Msgr. Lynn took the witness stand for the first time Wednesday, nearly two months after the start of his trial on charges of endangering the welfare of children and conspiracy, to which he pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors say Msgr. Lynn failed to keep certain priests out of assignments involving contact with children, despite being aware of prior allegations of abuse or improper conduct against them. The monsignor doesn't face abuse allegations himself.

The trial has opened a window on how one of the nation's largest Catholic dioceses has grappled with a sex-abuse scandal that has shaken the broader church in the U.S. and elsewhere. The Philadelphia diocese recently deemed several priests unsuitable for ministry after the diocese investigated allegations that they committed abuse or violated church guidelines. The diocese has said it referred allegations against several priests to law-enforcement authorities.

Several men and women testified at the trialthat as minors they were abused by priests in the Philadelphia diocese. Hundreds of documents have been shown to jurors as evidence, including a confidential list of about 35 priests facing abuse allegations that Msgr. Lynn helped prepare in 1994.

Msgr. Lynn investigated allegations in the early 1990s that one priest, Edward Avery, had molested a boy during the 1970s. Msgr. Lynn recommended psychiatric treatment for the priest, but after completing the treatment Mr. Avery was assigned to live at a parish with a school, court documents show. Mr. Avery, who has since been defrocked, pleaded guilty in March to sexually abusing a 10-year-old altar boy at that parish in 1999, and is now serving a prison sentence of 2? to five years.

Questioned by his lawyer in a Philadelphia courtroom Wednesday, Msgr. Lynn told jurors he had no authority to transfer priests to new assignments, and only could remove a priest from an assignment if the priest admitted the allegations. He said Mr. Avery had denied the allegation about the incident in the 1970s when he confronted the priest in the early 1990s.

Msgr. Lynn said only Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who served as archbishop of Philadelphia for most of Msgr. Lynn's tenure as secretary for clergy, had authority to transfer priests, or to remove them from ministry. He also said it was Cardinal Bevilacqua's policy not to inform parishioners or seek out other potential victims when an abuse allegation was lodged. Cardinal Bevilacqua died in January; he wasn't charged. Msgr. Lynn said he complied with these policies.

Msgr. Lynn said he believes he helped improve the diocese's handling of abuse allegations by scouring files for evidence of past allegations against priests still in active ministry, and ensuring that priests were monitored after receiving psychiatric treatment due to allegations.

He said he occasionally thought about quitting his post as secretary for clergy, but didn't because it was his nature to accept assignments from the bishops. "I believed that the will of God worked through the bishops," he said.

Under cross examination by a prosecutor, Msgr. Lynn said that he once lied to an alleged victim of abuse; he didn't elaborate. He also said that in hindsight more could have been done during his tenure as secretary for clergy to investigate abuse allegations.

Another priest, James Brennan, is on trial alongside Msgr. Lynn on charges that he attempted to rape a 14-year-old boy in 1996. He has pleaded not guilty. The trial is expected to continue into next week.

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