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Just Doing His Job Is Catholic Official's Defense

Monsignor William Lynn leaves the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia in March. When he finally took to the stand after two months of testimony, the prosecutor called him a liar over and over.
Matt Rourke

A clergy sex-abuse trial is intensifying in a Philadelphia courtroom. One defendant is James Brennan, a priest accused of trying to rape a minor.

What's drawing attention is the second defendant, Monsignor William Lynn. Lynn is the first high-level Catholic official to be criminally prosecuted — not for abusing minors himself, but for failing to protect children from predator priests.

Failure To Protect?

So far, it's been a brutal trial for Lynn. He served as the archdiocese's secretary for clergy between 1992 and 2004, and it was his job to investigate sex abuse claims and protect children.

For eight weeks, prosecutors presented a mountain of evidence — nearly 2,000 documents and some 50 witnesses — that Lynn put the priests and the church ahead of abused children.

But possibly the most compelling evidence against Lynn was his own words: statements before a grand jury a decade ago when he detailed what he did, or more important, did not do about priests suspected of abuse.

"He never called the police," says Ralph Cipriano, a journalist who has chronicled every day of testimony for the blog Philadelphia Priest Abuse Trial. "He never talked to authorities of any kind. He never reported anything to anybody except his superiors. And he kept everything in-house. It seemed to be like an intelligence network set up totally for the benefit of the church."

Taking The Stand

After two months of punishing testimony, Cipriano and others say, defense attorneys worried they could be losing the case. So they took a risk. They put Lynn on the stand.

"The thinking seemed to be ... 'It's fourth and 35, let's try the Hail Mary. Send in Lynn, and let's see what he can do,' " Cipriano says, "and maybe if the prosecutor will cooperate by beating him up so badly, that perhaps the jury will feel sympathetic for him."

Lynn did take a beating from the prosecutor, Patrick Blessington, who called Lynn a liar over and over again. Blessington forced the priest to admit he did not follow up on anonymous complaints. He said Lynn didn't tell victims when there were other allegations against a priest. Blessington also claimed Lynn even misled victims, by implying that the accused priests were out of ministry when they still had access to children.

Lynn replied the prosecutor was twisting his words. When Lynn said he was doing his best to protect children, Blessington shot back, "Your best is nothing."

The prosecution paid particular focus to a document that Lynn created in 1994 — a list of 35 priests who were known or suspected abusers. Dave Pierre, who heads The Media Report, which has provided the church's perspective on the trial, says that — as with much of the evidence — there are two ways to look at the list.

"The prosecution has presented this list as basically a smoking gun, in that this list shows that Lynn knowingly allowed priests to remain in ministry," Pierre says. "Lynn's defense, on the other hand, is, 'Wait a moment, this list shows that I sought to tackle this problem and address this problem.' "

That is Lynn's first defense — that he did more than any of his predecessors to stop sexually abusive priests.

Chain Of Command

Lynn's second defense, Pierre says, is that he was low man in the hierarchy.

"He did not really have defining authority," Pierre says. The power in the archdiocese rested with Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who died earlier this year.

"Only Bevilacqua had the power to assign priests and move them around and remove them from ministry, and Lynn has argued that his role was merely advisory to the bishop," Pierre says.

Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo Law School who has represented victims of abuse, calls this "the classic My Lai defense or the Nuremberg defense."

"It's the idea that ... as someone who was under orders, the person had no choice as to what they could do," Hamilton says. "But it's not a defense to criminal charges because you're charged according to your actions, and his actions were clearly part of a conspiracy to cover up abuse and to permit these abusers to have access to numerous children."

Hamilton believes the defense is hoping the jury will acquit Lynn because he wasn't ultimately responsible.

On Tuesday, the prosecutor will resume his cross-examination of Lynn. Then the attorneys for Brennan — the priest accused of trying to rape a 14-year-old boy — will put on their defense. Closing arguments could come as early as this week.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 4, 2012 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous Web version of this story said that a defendant in a sex-abuse trial is "a priest accused of trying to rape a minor, which is not that unusual." The wording inaccurately reflected our intended point, which is that trials of priests are not unusual.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty is the religion correspondent for NPR, reporting on the intersection of faith and politics, law, science and culture. Her New York Times best-selling book, "Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality," was published by Riverhead/Penguin Group in May 2009. Among others, Barb has received the American Women in Radio and Television Award, the Headliners Award and the Religion Newswriters Association Award for radio reporting.
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