Villanova Law Prof Reacts to Priest Abuse Verdicts

By Patti Mengers
Daily Times
June 22, 2012

Boston may be where the national clerical sex abuse scandal was first exposed when a priest was convicted of child molestation in 2002, but Philadelphia will be remembered as the place where a church official was first held criminally liable for not stopping the abuse.

Friday’s child endangerment conviction of the Rev. Msgr. William Lynn by a Philadelphia jury for allowing a known pedophile priest to have continued access to youngsters while he was secretary for clergy is precedent-setting, said Anne Bowen Poulin, a law professor at the Augustinian-run Villanova University in Radnor.

“What it shows is that the church documented so much of this history of abuse within the church. This signals to prosecutors that this evidence may be available,” said Poulin, who has taught at the Roman Catholic university since 1981.

The 61-year-old monsignor, a former parochial vicar at St. Katharine of Siena parish in the Wayne section of Radnor, served as secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, mostly under former Philadelphia archbishop Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who died in January.

During the 10-week trial, it was revealed that Lynn had assembled “secret files” with names of known or suspected pedophiles, one of which Bevilacqua — himself a canon and civil attorney — ordered to be shredded in 1994. Prosecutors learned about it after a copy was found this year in a safe.

Lynn was convicted on one count of endangerment in connection with Edward Avery of Haverford, who was defrocked by the Vatican in 2006 because church officials found allegations of his abuse of a minor to be credible. Just four days before the trial started, he pleaded guilty to abusing an altar boy back in 1999. He is serving two-and-a-half to five years in prison.

The jury was deadlocked over a verdict for Lynn’s other co-defendant, the Rev. James Brennan, who formerly taught at Cardinal O'Hara High School in Marple and is now out of active ministry. He was accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy during a leave of absence from his ministry in 1996.

“It is not an easy case (for the jury) to accept that a member of the church who was not an abuser was allowing this to continue on his watch,” said Poulin who teaches law classes in criminal procedure and evidence.

While Lynn may have been aware of the abusers, his attorney, Thomas Bergstrom maintained the monsignor was just following Bevilacqua’s orders when he did not notify civil authorities about the priests who were known to be or suspected of preying on children.

“A jury doesn’t generally respond to the argument that he was aware and was just following orders. It’s a hard thing for a jury to swallow when children are being victimized,” said Poulin.

The jury heard testimony from more than 12 adults who were allegedly sexually abused by priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia when they were children or adolescents.

“The other incidents demonstrate awareness and intent in relation to an overall pattern of child abuse,” said Poulin.

While Lynn’s conviction is a precedent-setting case, Poulin said there are a number of considerations that still might deter prosecutors from pursuing similar cases including the fact that the case took a long time to put together and present.

“One of the difficult parts of this case was that it required the victims to come forward and relive the trauma they experienced as young victims,” said Poulin.

As to Bergstrom’s assertion that Lynn was a “scapegoat”, Poulin said it is true that there are cases of child sex abuse by priests that occurred before the monsignor became secretary for clergy.

“There are a number of incidents that couldn’t be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations expiring. Some of the priest perpetrators will never be prosecuted for what they did,” said Poulin.

Charges against all the defendants arose as a result of a grand jury investigation launched by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who released the findings in February 2011. It was the second Philadelphia grand jury investigation of clerical sexual abuse. The first, launched by former District Attorney Lynne Abraham, revealed in 2005 that 63 priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia allegedly abused children as far back as the 1940s. None could be prosecuted because of the expired statute of limitations which, in 2006, was expanded to age 50 for victims.

Also charged in February 2011 with sexually assaulting the same Philadelphia altar boy victimized by Avery in the 1990s were the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, a member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, who is out of active ministry and former Catholic lay teacher Bernard Shero. They are scheduled to be tried separately in September.

Poulin sees an analogy between the Lynn trial and the sexual abuse trial of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky who has been charged with sexually abusing 10 boys over 15 years, some on the university premises. His arrest last November led to the firing of legendary Penn State head football coach, the now-late Joe Paterno, and, in January, the departure of the university president.

“This case and the Sandusky case provide opportunities to educate the public on how a pedophile operates and the harm that happens when people in authority and an institution don’t take allegations of sexual abuse seriously,” said Poulin.

“The two cases together give us a portrait of institutional failure,” she added.









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