It’s about money.
The clerical abuse trial that closed last week in a packed Philadelphia courtroom is about sexually predatory priests, scandal, power and betrayal. But perhaps underlying it all, the case against Monsignor William Lynn is about cash, a prosecutor told jurors as he made his closing argument on Thursday.
“Doesn’t it always come down to money?” Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington asked jurors, who on Friday began their deliberations in the landmark trial. Lynn is the only high-ranking, administrative official in the Roman Catholic Church to go on trial in the child sex abuse scandal.
Why else would Lynn, who investigated sexual misconduct allegations against priests, permit the “soul murder” of child molestation to continue, if not to keep those priests on the job, bringing in funds for the city’s archdiocese, Blessington said.
Jurors, who have heard testimony from scores of witnesses and have seen hundreds of documents since the trial began on March 26, received their instructions Friday from Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina.
Lynn, 61, is charged with two counts of endangering children and conspiracy. The prosecution claimed Lynn’s actions, or inactions, led to further abuse by two priests, one of them, Lynn’s co-defendant, the Rev. James Brennan, who is accused of the attempted rape of a suburban teenage boy in the 1990s.
The trial was to have a third defendant, defrocked priest Edward Avery, but before the trial began, he pleaded guilty to molesting a St. Jerome’s parish altar boy in the 1990s.
Lynn’s attorney, Thomas Bergstrom, told the jurors that Lynn, who served from 1992 to 2004 as the archdiocesan secretary for clergy, did not have the power to remove or reassign priests. That authority belonged to Lynn’s boss, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, then the city’s archbishop, Bergstrom said. Bevilacqua died in January. In his closing argument, Bergstrom mentioned the cardinal more than 20 times.
The monsignor, whose duties were described as akin to those of a personnel director, could investigate allegations against priests and make recommendations about those priests to the cardinal, Bergstrom said. But Lynn did not have the final say on removing priests or where priests were assigned and, therefore, could not be held accountable for any crimes the priests committed.
Bergstrom said Lynn investigated several priests and painstakingly documented every step he took. He tried to get priests treatment and tried to get them assigned where they could do no harm to children. Many of the same memos and letters that document Lynn’s actions were used in the trial by both the defense and the prosecution.
Using them to convict Lynn “simply makes no sense,” Bergstrom said.
Lynn saw the dark side of the church, the attorney said, and “it was he and he alone who tried to heal it.”
Blessington scoffed at that claim, often mockingly referring to Lynn as “our hero.”
The prosecutor maintained Lynn was an accomplice in an archdiocesan game plan to shield priests, not protect children. At times, grimacing as if in pain and his voice full of outrage, Blessington called Lynn’s defense preposterous and galling.
Lynn looked you in the eye and told you he put victims first, Blessington told jurors.
“How dare he!”
The prosecution charged that Lynn assigned Avery to St. Jerome’s and it was at the Winchester Park parish that he subsequently molested a 10-year-old boy. Lynn knew Avery was a threat to children, Blessington said, but he put him near children anyway.
Lynn’s attorney had said the monsignor had used therapists’ recommendations about where to place Avery in the archdiocese.
Blessington later countered that those therapists worked at St. John Vianney, an archdiocesan-owned treatment center, and were company doctors. That was all according to the game plan to shield priests and keep the public in the dark, he said.
Lynn maintained during his testimony last week and the week before that he had been following the instructions of his bishop, Cardinal Bevilacqua, in making parish assignments for priests who either admitted to being molesters or were suspected of being molesters.
Following orders is not a defense, Blessington said. The prosecutor said Lynn lied to victims and church members about what he was doing about predator priests.
In fact, Blessington used the words lie, liar or lying almost 50 times during his closing argument.
A CROWDED COURTROOM
Every seat was taken in the Criminal Justice Center’s Courtroom 304 on Thursday as the defendants’ friends and relatives squeezed in, joining the press, attorneys and other spectators.
Three international news agencies, at least two radio stations and five TV stations were represented along with local and national newspaper reporters. Attorney Marci Hamilton, who represents abuse victims who are suing the archdiocese, was there, as was Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who sat in the back of the courtroom to watch the prosecution’s closing argument.
Also in the gallery were several members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests as well as the group’s president, Barbara Blaine, who flew in from Chicago.
In a phone interview later, Blaine said she regarded Lynn’s trial as a historic first — the first time such a highly placed Catholic official was charged as responsible for sexual abuse by other priests.
She said she thought the defense had tried to minimize the impact of what sexual abuse might mean to a child. What it really is, she said, is “a devastating lifelong curse to the victim.”
THE OTHER DEFENDANT
The Rev. James Brennan’s attorney, William Brennan, brought up money, too.
He said the one witness against his client is a troubled criminal and liar who brought a complaint against the priest when he was broke and when his family was desperate for money.
His family filed its complaint, and the archdiocese started paying its bills, he said.
The witness, who said Brennan was a family friend who attempted to rape him after showing him pornography when he was a teen in the 1990s, has stolen, made false police reports and was guilty of identity theft. Jurors should not believe him, said attorney Brennan, who is not related to his client.
James Brennan had a spotless career that included contact with thousands of teenage boys as a teacher at Cardinal O’Hara High School and in local parishes, the lawyer said. He said there is no other sexual abuse complaint against his client.
But, according to trial testimony, there were complaints about loud parties the priest had while he was chaplain at Divine Providence Villa in Delaware County. The nuns at Divine Providence, a home for women with mental disabilities, had also griped that James Brennan had what seemed to be permanent guests — a former student and one of his brothers.
Those were not crimes, attorney Brennan told jurors, and should not be considered so.
There are only two charges lodged against his client, the attorney said, and they are the attempted rape of the teenage boy and endangering a child.
The jurors deliberated until 3:30 p.m. Friday, and are expected to return to their secret discussions on Monday. ••
Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or firstname.lastname@example.org