Pa. priest-abuse case could reach jury Friday

May 31, 2012 - 6:40 PM

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Roman Catholic church official should have called police or quit his job if he was truly troubled by the child sexual-abuse complaints pouring into his office in Philadelphia, a prosecutor argued Thursday in a landmark clergy-abuse trial.

Instead, Monsignor William Lynn remained secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004. As such, he was the point person for meeting with accusers, the accused priests, psychotherapists, parents and even the occasional whistleblowing priest or nun.

Prosecutors argued that he helped cover up the growing scandal, while the defense insisted he did what he could, but took orders from his archbishop.

"He stayed there as long as he did because he was willing to carry out the program, to keep the secrets," Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington argued. "He liked being close to the throne."

Lynn, 61, faces up to 21 years in prison if convicted of child endangerment and conspiracy. He is the first U.S. church official charged for his handling of the abuse complaints. Jurors could begin deliberations Friday after receiving instructions on the law.

The defense complained that Lynn is being unfairly blamed for the sins of the church and the rogue conduct of predator priests. He alone tried to move the church forward in its evolving treatment of accused priests and clergy-abuse victims, only to be rebuffed by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, his lawyer said. Bevilacqua died in January.

"You have witnessed evil in this courtroom. You have seen the dark side of the church. You've seen grown men come into this courtroom and weep because they were abused," lawyer Thomas Bergstrom argued. "And now, the sins of all these fathers that he laid bare — that he laid bare — are now laid at his feet."

Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington said Lynn stuck to "the game plan" by helping to keep pedophile priests in ministry and the public in the dark. He described priests as "religious rock stars" with the power to lure vulnerable children, and keep them quiet, often while befriending their parents.

He argued that Lynn and his unindicted co-conspirators at the archdiocese put the need to avoid scandal above children's safety, at least until the abuse crisis exploded in Boston in 2002.

"Can you imagine any of this happening if a mother was in charge?" Blessington asked.

Lynn is specifically charged with endangering children by leaving the Rev. James Brennan and defrocked priest Edward Avery in ministry despite earlier complaints or red flags.

Lynn had deemed Avery "guilty" of abusing a minor based on a doctor's 1992 complaint to the archdiocese. The defense argued that Lynn was the one to get Avery into inpatient treatment in the mid-1990s. Bevilacqua then assigned Avery to work as a hospital chaplain, but he lived at a parish where he now admits sexually assaulting an altar boy in the church sacristy in 1999.

Avery pleaded guilty days before trial and is serving 2-1/2 to five years in prison.

Lynn apologized for that victim's suffering when he testified this past week.

Blessington scoffed at the apology Thursday, showing jurors a tender picture of the victim as an altar boy, and reminding them of the troubled adult they saw on the witness stand.

Lynn is also charged with endangering Brennan's alleged victim. Brennan, 48, is charged in a 1996 sexual assault. His lawyer called the accuser a "con man" motivated by legal and financial problems. He filed the abuse complaint from jail, and has sued the church and others.

"They're damaged people. They're damaged because of the abuse," Blessington countered, describing many of the alleged victims who have testified.

In a pivotal pretrial ruling, Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina allowed prosecutors to discuss complaints lodged against 20 other priests who were never charged, to demonstrate an alleged "common scheme" by Lynn to bury the complaints.

During three grueling days of testimony, Lynn insisted that he lacked the authority to remove or transfer priests. That power rested with the cardinal, he said.

"He's being prosecuted for something that he couldn't do," Bergstrom said.

Jurors have seen hundreds of confidential church documents, many of them written by Lynn for secret church archives.

"This is some conspiracy to conceal abuse in the archdiocese, when you are writing memos that are as detailed as this," Bergstrom said.