Philadelphia Priest-abuse Jury Asks Questions about Conspiracy Charges
June 4, 2012
Questions raised by jurors deliberating in a groundbreaking clergy-abuse trial suggest lingering confusion over the charges lodged against a Roman Catholic official, even after a 10-week trial.
Monsignor William Lynn is charged with conspiracy and child endangerment for his handling of child sexual abuse complaints involving two priests.
The conspiracy charge involves convicted ex-priest Edward Avery, who pleaded guilty before trial to a 1999 sexual assault. Jurors asked Monday if Lynn had to conspire with Avery to be guilty of the charge, or if he’d be guilty if he conspired only with his colleagues at the Philadelphia archdiocese.
The question spawned hours of courtroom debate Monday outside the jury’s presence.
Prosecutors insist that Lynn is culpable if he conspired with even a single colleague — such as the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua — in his handling of Avery’s church career.
Defense lawyers protest that’s not how they tried the case. They argued that the conspiracy charge alleges that Lynn conspired with Avery to keep him in ministry.
Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina ultimately gave jurors a new instruction that the defense called “unintelligible.”
Sarmina explained that Avery does not have to be a co-conspirator, but she said the overt act required under conspiracy law must involve him.
“You veered away from the charge given Friday,” defense lawyer Jeffrey M. Lindy argued afterward. “I think it was, frankly, unintelligible.”
A gag order prevents lawyers from commenting outside of court, but the issue seems likely grounds for an appeal if Lynn is convicted.
Lynn, 61, is the first U.S. official charged over his handling of abuse complaints. He served as secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, most of it under Bevilacqua. The three felonies facing him carry prison terms of 3 1/2 to seven years each.
Jurors heard weeks of evidence about 20 other accused priests whose files were handled by Lynn, but those complaints are not directly part of the criminal case. They were permitted only to show Lynn’s state of mind and his alleged pattern of behavior. Most of the priests remained in ministry years after they were accused of molesting or raping children.
The jury of five women and seven men, some with Catholic ties, got the case Friday afternoon.
By Monday morning, they were asking detailed questions about the conspiracy charge, the child endangerment counts and the law on attempted rape.
The Rev. James Brennan, Lynn’s co-defendant, is charged with the attempted rape of a 14-year-old boy in 1996, when Brennan was on leave from the church. Brennan’s lawyer attacked the credibility of the accuser, who has a history of drug abuse and petty crime.
The jury is set to resume deliberations Tuesday.