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Jury deliberations could begin Friday in landmark abuse trial of two priests

By Sarah Hoye, CNN
updated 8:46 PM EDT, Thu May 31, 2012
Catholic Monsignor William Lynn faces accusations that he failed to keep priests accused of sexual abuse away from minors.
Catholic Monsignor William Lynn faces accusations that he failed to keep priests accused of sexual abuse away from minors.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • More than 60 witnesses as well as alleged victims of clergy abuse have testified
  • The criminal trial began March 26
  • William Lynn is the highest-ranking cleric to be charged with child endangerment
  • Also on trial is the Rev. James Brennan, accused of the attempted rape of a 14-year-old

Philadelphia (CNN) -- Preposterous. Disgraceful. Shameful. Absurd. Ridiculous.

Those are words Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington used in court Thursday to describe the behavior of Monsignor William Lynn, the highest-ranking cleric to be charged with child endangerment in the landmark child sexual abuse and conspiracy trial in which he and another Philadelphia priest are defendants.

"He actually looked you in the eye and said he put victims first. How dare he?" Blessington asked jurors during his more than two-and-a-half-hour closing argument.

"The hero," Blessington yelled before turning to Lynn and pointing. "That's what you saw, our hero here, endanger kids."

Lynn is accused of knowingly allowing dangerous priests to continue in the ministry in roles in which they had access to children.

Also on trial is the Rev. James Brennan, who is accused of the attempted rape of a 14-year-old. Both Brennan and Lynn have pleaded not guilty.

Closing arguments began just days after Lynn spent two-and-a-half days on the witness stand. All sides rested on Tuesday; closing arguments began Thursday morning.

Lynn's defense team argues that the monsignor repeatedly sent word of child sex abuse up the chain of command and insists that he operated under strict orders from the late Archbishop Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, and never had the power to remove a priest from ministry. The defense team adds Lynn was never formally trained to handle child sex abuse allegations and learned on the job.

"The allegation is that he did nothing, but he didn't do nothing," thundered Lynn's defense attorney Thomas Bergstrom.

"They want you to convict him for their sins. He held more than a candle to their shame, he put a spotlight on their shame," Bergstrom told jurors. As usual Lynn had donned his clerical garb. Numerous family members, priest friends and parishioners inside the courtroom also surrounded him.

Lynn is the first high-ranking church figure charged with child endangerment for allegedly shuffling predator priests from parish to parish. If convicted, Lynn faces 10 and a half to 21 years in prison.

Jury deliberations could begin Friday.

Now-defrocked priest Edward Avery was due to go on trial with Brennan and Lynn, but Avery pleaded guilty in March to involuntary sexual deviate sexual intercourse after admitting to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old altar boy during the 1998-1999 school year.

Avery, 69, was sentenced to two-and-a-half to five years.

More than 60 witnesses as well as a number of alleged victims of clergy abuse testified since the criminal trial began March 26. Both Brennan's and Avery's accusers have claims that fall within the statute of limitations.

Brennan's accuser, now in his 30s, was a former altar boy who cried on the stand weeks earlier as he described the incident with Brennan. The man, a former Marine, was discharged because of mental health issues.

"He will say anything at all to get what he wants," Brennan's attorney, William Brennan, no relation to the defendant, told jurors about Brennan's accuser. "Plug that into your credibility meter."

Brennan, who was removed from active ministry in 2006 after his accuser first came forward with his allegations, admitted in 2008 that he allowed the then-14-year-old to view pornography and sleep in the same bed with him during an overnight visit in 1996, according to testimony given to church investigators. Brennan did not testify at the trial.

His attorney urged jurors to use their "common sense" once they begin deliberations, adding that the archdiocese threw his client "under the bus" after the allegation was reported.

"It's a mistake, it's poor judgment," Brennan told jurors of the sleepover. "I can't believe a jury would destroy this man's life over that."

The courtroom remained at capacity throughout the day, complete with a line to get in. Thursday's session attracted Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who sat in the rear of the courtroom during the prosecution's closing arguments that began in the afternoon.

A 2011 grand jury report led the Philadelphia district attorney's office to criminally charge four Philadelphia priests and a parochial school teacher with raping and assaulting boys in their care, while Lynn was accused of allowing the abusive priests to have access to children.

"This behavior will not be tolerated -- ultimately they will be judged by a higher authority," Williams said in February 2011 following the release of the grand jury report. "We want to ensure that all victims of abuse can call us directly and don't have to filter their story with anyone else."

Also watching Thursday's proceedings was Barbara Blaine, president and founder of the Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). She said the trial is a game-changer.

"It's overwhelming and heartbreaking that so many children had to experience such torture and horrors when it could have been stopped and should have been stopped," Blaine said. "Because of this case, I think children are safer in Philadelphia."

The trial represents the first time that U.S. prosecutors have charged not just the priests who allegedly committed the abuses, but an official -- Lynn -- who stands accused of failing to stop the assaults.

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

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