Msgr. William J. Lynn took the witness stand in his own defense May 23 and told jurors that “in my heart” he put the interests of children first as he handled allegations of sexual abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
The former secretary for clergy of the Archdiocese faces two counts of endangering the welfare of children by recommending for assignment some priests accused of sexual misconduct with children.
“I did my best to ensure no child got hurt,” he said in testimony at the trial.
The charges are in connection to alleged sexual misconduct by a current priest, Father James J. Brennan, and sexual assault by a former priest, Edward V. Avery.
Before the start of the landmark trial Avery – who was laicized, or made a lay person, in 2006 – pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a minor.
Msgr. Lynn’s defense team took the risky move of calling their client to the stand to allow him to describe his role as head of the clergy office and how his responsibility for recommending priests for ministry assignments, including Avery, ultimately rested with Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.
The former archbishop of Philadelphia died in January of this year.
Answering attorney Thomas Bergstrom’s question as to who in the Archdiocese had authority to transfer priests, place them on leave or restrict their ministry, Msgr. Lynn replied, “only Cardinal Bevilacqua.”
The extent of the risk became clear when assistant district attorney Patrick Blessington directed blistering cross-examination against Msgr. Lynn, who appeared composed throughout the hours-long, aggressive questioning.
When pressed as to his own responsibility for protecting children from allegedly abusive priests, Msgr. Lynn said, “I was given directions by Cardinal Bevilacqua of what to do.”
Direction on actions, he said, came through the hierarchical administration of the time, which included administrators Msgr. James Molloy, who died in 2006, and now retired Allentown Bishop Edward P. Cullen.
“So you were just following orders?” Blessington asked.
“What I did, and what I tried to do, was move things a step forward,” Msgr. Lynn said, adding that he implemented “ministry support teams” for priests struggling with psychological and other problems, the concept of “limited ministry” for priests suspected of inappropriate behavior and that he removed priests from ministry who admitted abusing a child.
Testimony by Msgr. Lynn and previous review of documents centered on the case of Avery, who was accused of groping a minor boy in the 1980s.
Msgr. Lynn, who was clergy secretary from 1992 to 2003, discovered a letter in a file in 1992 reporting the boy’s allegation. He contacted and interviewed the then-young man, and also interviewed Avery.
If Avery had admitted the abuse, Msgr. Lynn testified that he had the authority to remove Avery. But lacking an admission, he urged Avery to report for a psychological evaluation.
As a result of the evaluation, which reported Avery’s alcoholism and “schizoid traits,” Avery entered a nine-month in-patient treatment program at the archdiocesan facility for such a purpose, St. John Vianney Center in Downingtown in 1993.
The victim, according to Msgr. Lynn, wanted nothing from the Archdiocese except the chance for him to confront Avery about the alleged abuse, a meeting which happened during the 1993 treatment.
Msgr. Lynn testified that he implemented a new “aftercare therapy” policy that consisted of a team of supporting priests, psychologists and social workers to help priests like Avery to continue their recovery.
Since Avery had not admitted the abuse, Msgr. Lynn said, he was obliged by archdiocesan policy approved by Cardinal Bevilacqua to recommend a ministry assignment for Avery.
The recommendation for assignment to Our Lady of Ransom Parish in Northeast Philadelphia, which would allow close supervision by a pastor who could work with the youth of the parish instead of Avery doing so and who was “not afraid to confront” Avery, was rejected by Cardinal Bevilacqua, Msgr. Lynn said.
Under questioning by defense attorney Bergstrom, Msgr. Lynn produced a list of 13 priests whose cases he investigated from 1991 to 1995, all with credible allegations of abuse. All the priests now are laicized, in a supervised life of prayer and penance in the Archdiocese or dead.
Scrutiny in the trial soon returned to a list of 35 priests compiled by Msgr. Lynn and a former assistant, Msgr. James D. Beisel, in 1994. The two priests combed 323 records in the “secret archives” file in a separate office, the Office of the Vicar for Administration that then-Msgr. Edward Cullen headed.
Msgr. Lynn’s defense has contended throughout the trial that compiling the list was the priest’s effort to “get a handle” on the scope past clergy sexual abuse, since his office was handling many allegations of sexual misconduct with children.
He testified that his direct superior, Msgr. Molloy, had suggested the idea previously but Msgr. Lynn gained the impetus to start compiling the list only after discovering a reference to alleged abuse by Father James M. Dux.
“Dux was accused of inappropriate behavior and his file showed a history of it,” Msgr. Lynn said. “There could be others like him.”
The list and cover memorandum written by Msgr. Lynn on Feb. 18, 1994, showed the cases of 35 priests on five pages. Three priests were identified as pedophiles.
The memo showed the receipt by Cardinal Bevilacqua on Feb. 24, along with his handwritten approval of a recommendation to offer Father Dux (who died in 2006) retirement from ministry.
Msgr. Lynn testified he never saw the memo or list again until preparing this year for his trial. He had mentioned their existence in his grand jury testimony in 2004.
The documents were discovered in a locked safe at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Philadelphia in 2006 but not given to state prosecutors until February of this year.
Previous testimony in the trial by archdiocesan lawyer Timothy Coyne indicated all archdiocesan administrators he questioned since 2004 regarding the memo and list denied knowledge of them.
It was revealed that Cardinal Bevilacqua ordered the memo and list and all copies shredded, but Msgr. Molloy surreptitiously retained the copy found later in the safe.
Also on trial with Msgr. Lynn, 61, the highest ranking church figure to be tried in the United States in conjunction with the clergy sexual abuse scandal, is Father Brennan, 48, who is accused of attempted rape of a boy in 1996.
Cross-examination of Msgr. Lynn is expected to continue Thursday and defense of Father Brennan to begin next week.
In a time to build, CatholicPhilly.com connects people and communities
As society emerges from the loss and separation of the pandemic, CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you join in our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community.
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103