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Judge rejects dismissal in child sex cover-up case against cleric

From Sarah Hoye, CNN
updated 1:53 PM EST, Mon February 27, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Monsignor William Lynn is accused of covering up sexual abuse
  • He sought dismissal based on a 1994 memo from Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua
  • In the memo, Bevilacqua ordered a list of suspected abusive priests destroyed
  • Prosecutors claim motion aimed to "pollute the pool of jurors"

Philadelphia (CNN) -- A judge on Monday rejected a motion to dismiss charges against a Philadelphia archdiocese official accused of covering up evidence of suspected sexual abuse of children.

Attorneys for Monsignor William Lynn had asked a judge to throw out charges against him based on a March 1994 memo showing Philadelphia's archbishop at the time, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, ordered the destruction of a secret list naming 35 Catholic priests suspected of abuse.

The defense said the memo, composed by Lynn's then-supervisor, Monsignor James Molloy, proved that Lynn informed his superiors -- including the archbishop -- that priests in the archdiocese were assaulting children.

Common Pleas Court Judge Teresa Sarmina rejected the motion on the grounds there was no legal basis to the defense's argument.

In response to the motion, prosecutors wrote that it "might more appropriately be entitled a press release" that "spews false information that serves no purpose other than to pollute the pool of jurors."

Prosecutors added that the newly turned-over documents, which were found in a safe in the Office of the Clergy, are "in fact the equivalent of a smoking gun for the prosecution case against Lynn."

CNN legal contributor Paul Callan said the documents, if proven authentic, would be "a shocking indictment of one of the highest-ranking people in the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S."

"For the first time, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church is possibly being implicated in this child abuse scandal in a very, very definitive way."

Bevilacqua, who died on January 31, testified 10 times before grand juries in 2003 and 2004. A final grand jury report said it had no doubt that the cardinal knew about the danger posed by the accused priests and that his actions endangered thousands of children in the archdiocese.

Lynn, who served as the secretary for clergy under Bevilacqua, was charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of a child in connection with the alleged assaults.

From 1992 until 2004, Lynn was responsible for investigating reports that priests had sexually abused children.

The grand jury found that Lynn, now 60, endangered children, including the victims in these most recent cases, by knowingly allowing dangerous priests to continue in the ministry in roles in which they had access to children.

Lynn faces a maximum of 14 years in prison if convicted of all charges, according to the district attorney's office.

Following the release of the January 2011 grand jury report, Cardinal Justin Rigali, who later resigned as Philadelphia's archbishop, placed Lynn on administrative leave.

A total of 23 priests in the Philadelphia area have been placed on administrative leave. The archdiocese first placed 21 priests on administrative leave on March 7. Then another two priests, who were retired but allowed to assist in priestly duties, were placed on leave on March 30.

Back in court on Monday, following the judge's ruling, the lawyers and judge started interviewing jurors for trial, a process that could take weeks.

Although Lynn has not been charged with sex abuse, the others on trial with him -- Edward Avery, who was defrocked in 2006, and another priest, James Brennan -- are accused of sexually abusing children between 1996 and 1999.

Another priest, Charles Engelhardt, and former archdiocese school teacher, Bernard Shero, are facing sex abuse charges and will be tried separately in September.

All five defendants pleaded not guilty to sexual abuse and conspiracy charges in April.

If convicted, Avery, Engelhardt, Shero and Brennan face a maximum of 67 years in prison.

A gag order imposed by a Philadelphia judge remains in effect. It bars all parties involved in the criminal case from talking to the media.

Testimony is scheduled to begin March 26.

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