Landmark clergy sex abuse trial begins in Philadelphia
State prosecutors and defense lawyers for Msgr. William J. Lynn and Father James J. Brennan all decried the issue of sexual abuse of children at the start of a criminal trial March 26 in Philadelphia.
Despite that apparent agreement, the attorneys embarked on sharply divergent paths as they made opening arguments before presiding Judge Teresa Sarmina and jurors at the beginning of the trial for Msgr. Lynn, 61, the former Secretary for Clergy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and an archdiocesan priest, Father James J. Brennan.
Msgr. Lynn is the highest-ranking diocesan official ever charged with alleged crimes in connection with the scandal of sexual abuse of children by clergy that has roiled the Catholic Church in the United States for the past decade.
He faces two charges of endangering the welfare of a child.
Father Brennan, 48, is accused of attempting to rape a 14-year-old boy in 1996.
Both priests remain free on bail and on administrative leave by the Archdiocese, so they may not function publicly as priests.
A third defendant in the trial, former priest Edward Avery, 69, pleaded guilty Friday, March 23 to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a boy in 1999, as well as a charge of conspiracy. He faces a sentence of two and a half years to five years in prison. He was not present in the courtroom.
Media presence was heavy outside the Criminal Justice Center in Center City Philadelphia as cameras jostled to catch a glimpse of the defendants as they waited with visitors in lines to pass through metal detectors.
Inside Courtroom 304, some two dozen media from Philadelphia and national outlets outnumbered family and friends of the defendants. There were few observers from the general public.
Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Coelho in her opening argument emphasized the alleged conspiracy of archdiocesan officials, especially Msgr. Lynn. Coelho repeatedly referred to the “secrets” and the Archdiocese’s “secret archive files” of priests accused of sexual assault or misconduct dating to the 1940s, and Msgr. Lynn as the keeper of those secrets.
As archdiocesan secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, his role, Coelho said, was as a “human resources manager” charged with “investigating crimes committed against children by priests” and to “protect the Church, protect children and protect priests’ privacy.”
“You can’t protect children without bringing allegations (of misconduct) to light,” she said. “(Msgr.) Lynn kept secrets in the dark, in the secret archives; he kept parishioners in the dark.
“It is pretty much common sense that you don’t endanger the welfare of children,” she said, referring to the charges against Msgr. Lynn, who she said “kept a lid on scandal by keeping it in the dark.”
Coelho cited the cases of 12 archdiocesan priests and their alleged sexual abuse of minors. The cases were all part of the 2005 Grand Jury presentment that widely exposed the crisis of sexual abuse by priests in the Philadelphia Archdiocese over more than 60 years.
The cases have become notorious and underscored what Coelho termed a conspiracy to endanger children in a “concerted effort to protect the Church from scandal.”
Msgr. Lynn’s defense attorney Thomas Bergstrom echoed Judge Sarmina’s opening injunction to the jurors that the defendants are presumed innocent during the trial, and that the jury must find his client guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Bergstrom acknowledged sex abuse occurred in the Archdiocese as evidence presented at the trial will show, but said he does not represent the Church or the Archdiocese, but only Msgr. Lynn.
His client, Bergstrom said, “knows (sexual abuse of a child) is awful, but he and perhaps he alone is the one who tried to correct it.”
Bergstrom said Msgr. Lynn in his role met with victims and priests accused of abuse, and documented everything in memoranda and letters. Msgr. Lynn forwarded that information and recommendations on priestly assignments “to the chain of command.” He had no authority to assign priests as secretary for clergy.
“The only man in the Archdiocese that can assign priests is Cardinal Bevilacqua,” Bergstrom said.
He added that evidence in the trial would show that the late Cardinal, who led the Archdiocese from 1988 to 2003, rejected Msgr. Lynn’s recommendation for assignment of then-Father Avery. The Cardinal instead assigned him to hospital ministry and residence in a parish where Avery would later be accused of sexual assault of a boy, and for which he was ultimately convicted last week.
“Some have the theory that there is a massive conspiracy to harm children in the Archdiocese,” Bergstrom said. “But that’s not this case, not his (Msgr. Lynn’s) case.”
Bergstrom then described how his client tried to address the issue of priest misconduct.
More than a year after Msgr. Lynn took the helm of the clergy office, reports started to surface about allegations of priest sex abuse from past decades. The priest and an aide began an investigation of priest personnel files and in locked document archives at the archdiocesan headquarters in Philadelphia. They wanted to assess, Bergstrom said, “How bad is this problem?”
Their result, he said, were 323 files from which they compiled 35 names of priests with accusations or credible evidence of sexual abuse.
Their memo of Feb. 18, 1994 attached a list with the names, which was sent up through the archdiocesan administration of the time to Msgr. Lynn’s superiors: to Msgr. James Malloy (deceased); Father Joseph Cistone (now bishop of the Diocese of Saginaw, Mich.); Msgr. Edward Cullen (now retired bishop of Allentown) and Cardinal Bevilacqua.
Although the Cardinal ordered the memo shredded, a copy was placed in a locked box not discovered until 2006 and not produced for the court in the trial until recent weeks.
William Brennan, the defense lawyer for Father James Brennan – the two are not related strongly emphasized for jurors the ease of which names could be confused in the trial. Brennan represents only his client, not Msgr. Lynn or former priest Avery or even Father Robert Brennan, a priest named in the grand jury report and cited by Coelho as an allegedly abusive priest.
Coelho’s vivid descriptions of alleged sexual abuse by priests going back to 1948 through the 1990s gave a preview of the kind of details that are likely to emerge in the trial.
Brennan, the lawyer for Father Brennan, gave a hint of how combative the proceedings may also become. In his statement, he said evidence will cast doubt on the veracity of the claim and perhaps the character of the person making it, which led to the charge of attempted rape.
All attorneys suggested the trial might proceed from several weeks at a minimum to several months. That is because evidence presented at the trial will rely on thousands of documents produced by the Archdiocese from its personnel and secret archive files as well as testimony from experts and others.