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Senior Philadelphia Church Official Receives Mixed Verdict in Landmark Child Endangerment Case (4074)

The jury finds Msgr. William Lynn guilty on one child endangerment charge but innocent on conspiracy charge.

06/22/2012 Comments (18)

Msgr. William Lynn

– Reuters/Scott Anderson

PHILADELPHIA — A jury today found a former Philadelphia archdiocesan official guilty on one of two counts of child endangerment, but cleared him of the other as well as a conspiracy charge.

In a closely watched landmark case, Msgr. William Lynn, 61, the archdiocese’s secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004 and the most senior U.S. Church official to be criminally charged in an abuse case, was accused of knowingly placing minors in danger when he reassigned troubled priests to parishes where they would have access to children.

Msgr. Lynn faces three and a half to seven years in prison. His lawyer is expected to appeal.

A statement from the archdiocese released today said, "This has been a difficult time for all Catholics, especially victims of sexual abuse. The lessons of the last year have made our Church a more vigilant guardian of our people's safety. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia is on a journey of reform and renewal that requires honesty and hope. We are committed to providing support and assistance to parishioners as they and the Church seek to more deeply understand sexual violence and to create an environment that is safe and welcoming to all, including past victims.

"The Archdiocese of Philadelphia offers a heartfelt apology to all victims of clergy sexual abuse. Now and in the future, the Church will continue to take vigorous steps to ensure safe church environments for all the faithful in Philadelphia."

The trial comes a decade after the 2002 clergy sex-abuse crisis, and it has been cited by U.S. groups representing victims to bolster their stance that the Church has continued to shield clerical predators. The headlines have stirred frustration in dioceses across the nation that have labored to implement the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, approved by the U.S. bishops to prevent future harm.

At the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Atlanta last week, Al Notzon, the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board, told the conference that despite the near universal adoption of the charter’s guidelines, “[t]hose few cases that are not reported quickly become news.”

The high-profile case is the latest in a series of cascading crises that greeted Archbishop Charles Chaput, who was appointed to lead the archdiocese last year. On June 21, he announced that 18% of the archdiocese’s staff would be laid off to help address a $17-million deficit in its operating budget.

The trial commenced in March, and more than 60 witnesses were called. But a widely publicized videotaped deposition of the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia was never shown to the jury. The cardinal died in January.

The Common Pleas Court panel of seven men and five women spent 13 days in deliberation, occasionally requesting a review of testimony or a clarification of the criminal charges, and earlier this week reported that they were deadlocked on four of the five charges, before the judge sent them back for further deliberations. 

A second archdiocesan priest, Father James Brennan, was also on trial, charged with attempted rape and one count of child endangerment dating back to 1996, when a 14-year-old boy visited his apartment. Father Brennan did not take the stand, a decision, experts suggested, that signaled the defense’s belief that the prosecution had failed to prove the rape charge. The jury deadlocked on the charges against Father Brennan.

The two priests were charged in the wake of an explosive 2011 grand jury report that led to the criminal indictments of three priests for child rape. It was the second grand jury report on clergy child abuse in Philadelphia; in 2005, another grand jury found that the local church had  failed to protect minors from clerical predators.

The conspiracy charge against Msgr. Lynn alleged that he conspired with Edward Avery, a former priest, to endanger a child. In March, Avery pleaded guilty to conspiracy and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse involving a 14-year-old boy; he is serving a sentence.

The prosecution sought to prove that Msgr. Lynn had the power to protect children by removing abusive priests but failed to do so. The defense sought to establish that the defendant did not have that authority and was obliged to accommodate internal policies that focused on avoiding scandal and protecting the Church.

The defense and prosecution debated the intent of dozens of memos about troubled priests written by Msgr. Lynn, who testified that he had sought to protect minors and had removed priests. But, he asserted, he could not remove accused priests who did not admit to abusing a child. Only the cardinal, he stated, had that power.

During the trial, according to news reports, evidence included a memo written by Msgr. Lynn outlining his discussion with a victim who said he had been molested by a Catholic high-school teacher.

In his memo, Msgr. Lynn reported that he had informed the victim that others had already stepped forward to accuse the teacher. In the margin of the memo was a comment from the then-assistant vicar for administration: “Unnecessary statement,” read the comment. “Never admit to victims that there are other cases.”

Two abuse victims testified in the trial. One 47-year-old male victim, who had been abused by Avery as a teenager, received three letters in response to his accusations against the former priest from Msgr. Lynn and also met with the Church official.

The defense argued that the letters confirmed that the Church official took the accusations seriously and had Avery sent for treatment. Afterward, however, Msgr. Lynn then placed him in a parish where he allegedly continued to abuse the victim.

During the trial, news reports also covered the prosecution's disclosure of a secret list of  35 active archdiocesan priests credibly accused of child abuse or known to have harmed children. The list was compiiled by Msgr. Lynn in 1994, and was found in a church safe in February; the prosecution argued that Cardinal Bevilaqua had directed that the list be shredded, but some church official, possibly Msgr. Lynn, put a copy of the list in the safe.

The 2011 grand jury report alleged that 37 priests had been placed in parishes despite “substantial evidence of abuse.” Ultimately, Cardinal Justin Rigali, who succeeded Cardinal Bevilaqua, suspended 26 priests in the wake of the grand jury report.

Cardinal Rigali also initiated a reorganization of the archdiocese’s response to allegations of abuse and victim assistance and approved an intensive review of the allegations against the 26 priests.

On May 4, his successor, Archbishop Chaput, announced the fate of eight priests and expressed his hope that every case would be resolved soon.

Archbishop Chaput noted that “[s]ix of the 26 cases have not yet been cleared by law enforcement, so our own internal investigation has not begun. In two more of the 26 cases, we’ve just recently received clearance from law enforcement, and our internal investigation is now proceeding.”

The grand jury had accused the archdiocese of neglecting to follow its own procedures for responding to abuse allegations. At the May 4 press conference, Archbishop Chaput confirmed that each case has been reviewed by “a veteran Philadelphia child-abuse prosecutor, Mrs. Gina Maisto Smith, and a multidisciplinary team of recognized experts in the field of child protection.”

Those findings, he said, “were then studied by the reinvigorated Archdiocesan Review Board,” whose members had broad experience addressing the sexual abuse of minors from a variety of perspectives.

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.

Filed under archbishop charles chaput, cardinal anthony bevilacqua, cardinal justin rigali, clerical sexual abuse scandal, philadelphia archdiocese