The highest-ranking cleric to be charged with child endangerment testified Wednesday in the landmark child sexual abuse and conspiracy trial in which he and another Philadelphia priest are defendants.
Dressed in clerical garb, Monsignor William Lynn took the stand inside the packed Common Pleas courtroom under the watchful eye of Judge Teresa Sarmina. He was calm, confident and very matter-of-fact during direct examination by one of his defense attorneys, Thomas Bergstrom.
“I felt I was helping priests and helping victims as best I could,” Lynn told jurors, swiveling in the witness chair.
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.
Bergstrom and fellow defense counsel Jeff Lindy put their client, Lynn, on the stand at mid-morning.
As the secretary for clergy in Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004, Lynn was responsible for the personnel matters for the more than 800 priests within the Philadeplphia Archdiocese, including investigating child sex abuse allegations against priests.
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.
Lynn is the first high-ranking church figure charged with child endangerment for allegedly shuffling predator priests from parish to parish.
Berstrom pointed to an infamous list of 35 priests suspected of sexually abusing children co-authored by Lynn in 1994 that was sent up the chain of command.
The list was later found inside a locked safe that was drilled open in 2006. Still, the list of Catholic priests accused or found guilty of sexual misconduct, plus a memo ordering the shredding of the list of priests plus other personnel documents, did not come to light until February.
Lynn testified that the first time he learned that the list had been shredded was when he was at Bergstrom’s office. He drafted the list because he was concerned after learning about allegations against a priest who had a history of sexual misconduct, he said.
“It concerned me that they’re could be others like him. That was the impetus to get it (the list) done,” Lynn said.
Following his post as secretary for clergy, Lynn became pastor of a Philadelphia-area parish until he was removed after his arrest as a result of the February 2011 grand jury report.
Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington dismissed claims that Lynn was a humble servant who was simply following orders from Cardinal Bevilacqua.
“You were just following orders? Is that your excuse?” Blessington asked during cross-examination.
“I tried to move things forward. I thought was I was doing the best I could do,” Lynn replied.
There was definite tension in the air between the prosecution and the defense, and at times Lynn appeared flustered and stammered while being questioned.
“I was the one who met with the victims and who met with the priests…I was the one who send the information upstairs. If I walked away, someone else could do it,” he said. “It’s not as black and white as you’re making it.”
When asked if his efforts helped a former altar boy molested in a church sacristy by now-defrocked priest Edward Avery during the 1998-99 school year, Lynn said he did what he could.
“I did my best with the parameters I had,” he said. “Since he’s so much in denial I couldn’t remove him based on ‘it could have’ happened,” he said referring to his confronting Avery in 1992 after a man had reported that Avery had molested him in the 1970s.
Avery was due to also go on trial with Brennan and Lynn, but pleaded guilty in March to involuntary sexual deviate sexual intercourse after admitting to sexually assaulting the 10-year-old altar boy during the 1998-1999 school year.
The victim, who testified in April, also alleges abuse by the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, who was a priest at the same parish, as well as by Bernard Shero, a teacher at the school. Engelhardt and Shero go on trial in September.
The victim described a life of substance abuse, a suicide attempt and a criminal history including drug possession that he testified came as a result of the sexual assault by Avery.
He said he did not tell anyone about the abuse until 2009, after a group therapy session for his drug use.
Lynn, who was the secretary for clergy under former Archbishop Bevilacqua, is accused of knowingly allowing Avery and Brennan access to children despite allegations of sexual abuse of minors. From 1992 until 2004, Lynn was responsible for investigating reports that priests had sexually abused children.
Avery, 69, was sentenced to two-and-a-half to five years in prison after his guilty plea.
Two separate grand jury reports accused the archdiocese of failing to investigate claims of sexual abuse of children by priests.
A 2011 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.
On May 4, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announced resolutions to eight of the 26 cases of priests on administrative leave as a result of the February 2011 grand jury report.
Yet, the archdiocese announced Sunday it ousted two priests – not connected to those cases – due to allegations of sexual abuse of minors.
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.
Lynn’s cross-examination will continue Thursday.