The sex abuse trial of three Catholic clerics will begin next week in a Philadelphia courtroom, but, in the court of public opinion, it’s the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia that also will be judged.
An examination of how the archdiocese handled allegations that some of its priests sexually abused children will be a key part of the prosecution’s case against the Rev. James Brennan and former priest Edward Avery, both of whom are charged with raping minors. It will be especially crucial in prosecuting Monsignor William Lynn, who is charged with endangering children by keeping Brennan and Avery in parish roles in which they could have contact with kids.
It was Lynn, who served as secretary of clergy under Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who prosecutors maintain investigated Avery and Brennan and knew of molestation allegations against both men.
The jury trial before Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina is expected to last four months, which is a long time for allegations that the church took no actions against molester priests to remain in front of the public.
Even one of Lynn’s attorneys, Jeffrey Lindy, said that there was no denying the archdiocese is the case’s unindicted co-conspirator.
The District Attorney’s Office started investigating Avery and the Rev. Charles Engelhardt in 2009 after the archdiocese notified authorities of complaints against the two men, Assistant District Attorney Evangelia Manos said in February 2011, months before a gag order was imposed on everyone involved in the case.
A grand jury began investigating Avery and Engelhardt, an Oblate of St. Francis DeSales, in 2010, Manos said. The jury’s report, which in parts is sexually explicit, was announced in February 2011. Arrested were Engelhardt, Avery, Brennan, Lynn and Bernard Shero, a former teacher at St. Jerome’s parish in Winchester Park.
Grand jurors had accused Engelhardt, Avery and Shero of abusing the same St. Jerome’s altar boy in the 1990s. They had begun looking into Shero while investigating the two priests, and also began examining Brennan’s activities, charging him with raping a Chester County boy. All four were charged with rape, child molestation and related offenses.
The grand jurors held Lynn responsible for the crimes they said were committed by Brennan and Avery.
They pulled no punches in their comments about the monsignor, who was secretary for clergy from 1993 to 2004:
“The evidence before the Grand Jury suggests that the Secretary for Clergy was acutely interested in shielding abusive clergy from criminal detections, the cardinal from scandal and the church from financial liability. It shows no interest on Monsignor Lynn’s part in defending children entrusted by their parents to archdiocese schools and churches. Instead of protecting children, Monsignor Lynn endangered them.”
In the cases of both Brennan and Avery, the grand jurors wrote, Lynn knew of multiple complaints against both men, did not call law enforcement and took no action to keep them away from children.
Grand jurors called on evidence presented to an earlier grand jury whose report was issued in 2005 that Lynn knowingly transferred priests who had sexually abused minors to positions in which children would be entrusted to their care.
Because the statute of limitations had expired for those crimes, jurors wrote, Lynn and those priests couldn’t be then prosecuted. However, Judge Sarmina will allow prosecutors to tell jurors about those cases during the trial.
Members of the 2011 grand jury said they were appalled by the victims’ assistance program set up by the archdiocese after the 2005 grand jury report was released. They charged that the archdiocese counselors didn’t keep victims’ information confidential.
Since the 2011 report was released, several civil suits have been filed against the archdiocese, its top officials, priests and employees by men who said they had been molested by priests when they were children.
Lynn and the other four were arrested last year. Conspiracy charges soon were added against all defendants but Shero, and then Shero and Engelhardt’s trials were severed from the trial that will begin next week. They’ll be tried in early September. All defendants have pleaded not guilty.
Also, one of the assertions made by the 2011 grand jurors was that more than 30 priests against whom there were credible molestation accusations remained in active ministry.
Cardinal Justin Rigali, then the archbishop, immediately denied that charge, but not long after that, the archdiocese announced several of those priests were placed on administrative leave. Just last week, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported another, Monsignor Richard Powers, 76, was put on leave. The paper said Powers’ name was on an internal archdiocesan memo in which he was suspected of molesting a 17-year-old Venezuelan girl in that country.
Rigali has since retired. His predecessor, Bevilacqua, died one day after Sarmina ruled that he could be called to testify. He still might. He gave testimony that was videotaped in the fall, and it’s possible that could be used in the trial.
Other defendants have tried to get their cases separated, and defense attorneys have tried to get Sarmina to recuse herself from presiding over the trial. None of those moves was successful.
There have been numerous motions filed by both defense and prosecuting attorneys. Other than severing two of the defendants from the trial that begins next week, defense victories have been rare. One of Lynn’s lawyers complained to Sarmina that she hadn’t ruled in Lynn’s favor once. Sarmina responded that she hadn’t been keeping score.
Two other judges handled the preliminaries, but the case has been in Sarmina’s fifth-floor courtroom since August. Because a large number of witnesses, spectators and new media members are expected, the trial will be conducted in the larger Courtroom 304. The trial starts at 9 a.m. Monday.
Seating will be on a first-come-first-served basis. Those coming into the Criminal Justice Center at 13th and Filbert streets must go through metal detectors before they can get to the stairs or elevators.
Sarmina said last month that she will not allow electronic devices — mobile phones, PDAs, iPads, iPods, Nooks, Kindles, Blackberries or laptops — in the courtroom. It will not matter that such devices are switched off; anyone who has one will not be allowed in court. ••
To see the 2011 grand jury report on sexual abuse by clergy and its presentment, visit www.phila.gov/districtattorneyEndFragment