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Philadelphia Priest Sex Trial Against William Lynn Closing Arguments Scheduled For Thursday

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Monsignor William Lynn has been on trial in Philadelphia since March.
Monsignor William Lynn has been on trial in Philadelphia since March.

PHILADELPHIA — In opening statements in March, a prosecutor called the alleged cover-up of child sexual assaults by priests a battle between right and wrong within the Philadelphia archdiocese.

But hundreds of church documents aired at trial suggest there was little internal debate among Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua and his top men on how to handle the complaints: Ask the priest if he did it. Send him to a church-run hospital. Tell the parish he's on "health leave." And unless he's diagnosed as a pedophile, transfer him to another position.

Bevilacqua made Monsignor William Lynn his point person for the thankless job from 1992 to 2004, when Lynn served as secretary for clergy. Now jurors will have to decide – after closing arguments Thursday – whether the mild-mannered Lynn alone should be held criminally responsible for the sins of the church.

Bevilacqua has died. And none of his other confidantes have been charged.

"No matter how it turns out, it is one of the most significant trials in the United States having to do with this, with sexual abuse," said psychologist Richard Sipe, a former priest who's now an expert on priest sexual abuse. "It's made clear what everybody has known - that the responsibility goes way up. That, of course, is what Lynn is saying: 'The cardinal is responsible.' He conveniently died. That was a very convenient death."

Bevilacqua died in January, just weeks before Lynn's trial. Two months earlier, he had given a videotaped deposition that prosecutors decided not to use, perhaps because he was by then 88 and suffering from cancer and dementia. The regal, law school-educated cardinal was a shadow of the combative ruler who had tangled with prosecutors in 10 hostile appearances before the grand jury in 2003 and 2004.

Asked back then why one accused priest was kept near children at his parish for two months before he went for treatment, Bevilacqua punted responsibility to Lynn.

"These are the details that I leave to my secretary for the clergy," the cardinal told the grand jury.

Lynn testified last week that Bevilacqua forbade him from telling parishes the real reasons priests were pulled when they were sent for sexual-disorder treatment and from telling his next parish about his background.

Bevilacqua had conceded the latter point. The priest "would not be able to function in that parish anymore," Bevilacqua told the grand jury.

After a second grand jury probe, Lynn last year became the first U.S. church official charged with child endangerment for his administrative actions, a conspiracy of silence. Four others were charged with abusing children. They include the Rev. James Brennan, who is on trial with Lynn for an alleged 1996 sexual assault.

Prosecutors unearthed a stunning cache of confidential church documents and moved many into evidence - and therefore into the public domain.

They support notions of cloak-and-dagger intrigue behind the church's proud facade.

Lynn prepared a top-secret list of 35 alleged predator-priests in 1994, only to have it vanish. He said he couldn't find it to show the first grand jury. The list surfaced ten days after Bevilacqua's death – along with a 1994 memo that Bevilacqua had ordered it shredded.

But someone's copy of the list was hiding in a locked safe at the Office for Clergy that was broken open in 2006. The list was then filed away – allegedly unnoticed in a gray file – in a church lawyer's office, according to testimony from a string of church employees.

Lynn, who spent three days on the stand, said he didn't put it there, and didn't own the safe.

The list would have offered the first grand jury proof that Bevilacqua and his bishops knew as early as 1994 that pedophiles and priests whom Lynn deemed "guilty" of abuse were still working for him.

Sipe said, "This is the pattern in every diocese that I have been involved, and I know this from being a member of the clergy for so many years: The bishops know everything. The superiors know everything."

Nearly all of Bevilacqua's other top aides climbed the career ladder to become bishops. Lynn was presumably on that path until the priest-abuse crisis exploded in Boston in 2002.

Jurors must now decide if his actions were criminal. He faces up to 21 years in prison if convicted of child endangerment and conspiracy.

Defense lawyers call him a scapegoat.

Asked Tuesday if it wasn't immoral to keep predators in ministry, Lynn asked, "You want me to answer for the whole church?"

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