Wednesday, May 23, 2012

In His Own Defense: At Philly Abuse Trial, The Secretary Takes the Stand

Not long after Msgr William Lynn became the first US church official to be charged with facilitating a cover-up of abuse cases, word swirled among his Philadelphia confreres that "If Bill goes down, he's taking everyone with him."

Since beginning trial in late March, the longtime Secretary for Clergy of the roiled Northeastern archdiocese has mostly sat expressionless, slumped in his chair at the defense table as a parade of witnesses and reams of Chancery files gave detailed accounts of "powder keg" priests, gut-wrenching romps by serial predators, and at least one cleric whose perceived "disobedience" was dealt with more swiftly and severely by his superiors than seemingly any had been over reports of misconduct with minors.

Today, however, it was Lynn's turn to talk. And while most of the nine-week proceeding has tended to draw a daily crowd numbering little more than a dozen spectators, this time Room 304 of the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center was full, as TV camera-crews congregated in the lobby downstairs, as they only do when major developments arise.

Even for his attorneys' early assurance that the monsignor -- who served as head of clergy personnel from 1992-2004 -- "has a story to tell," whether Lynn would take the stand has loomed as a key uncertainty in the landmark case. Yet while a "no exceptions" ban on electronic devices in the courtroom has made real-time reporting from the proceedings essentially nonexistent, word hit the street within minutes of this morning's indication inside that the lead defendant was about to testify.

After eight weeks of dramatic, often harrowing, prosecution arguments, Lynn's defense began its case yesterday, opening its witness list with two of their client's three priest-deputies in the Office for Clergy, each of whom remained in senior archdiocesan posts until becoming pastors in recent years. But only when their former boss -- a stocky priest with a strong, working-class Philly accent -- followed suit to field hour upon hour of questions has the clash of strategies presented itself in the trial's starkest light to date.

For their part, Lynn's team maintained an approach of presenting the monsignor as a third-, or even fourth-tier functionary in a Chancery apparatus where nothing could be done without the approval of the then-archbishop, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who died in late January after providing two days of videotaped testimony. In an intense cross-examination, meanwhile, prosecutors aimed to portray Lynn as the most significant link in a "chain of information" that -- flowing from a combination of victims, the accused and doctors at an archdiocese-owned hospital evaluating the latter -- would be compiled by the Clergy Office to reach his superiors, who made the ultimate call on the monsignor's recommendations in each case.

For the bulk of his tenure, Lynn's office served as the archdiocese's central venue for abuse-related matters ranging from investigating allegations to victim assistance and implementing actions to be taken on the accused. (In the wake of the Dallas Charter and Norms enacted by the US bishops a decade ago next month, those functions have since been split among a number of newly-created bodies.) The monsignor testified that, under his remit from Bevilacqua, he could only remove a priest from an assignment if the cleric admitted to an allegation, irrespective of the weight of the evidence.

In local shorthand, though, the core of the defense has pitted one floor of the Philadelphia Chancery against another, with Lynn's attempts at "compassion" for victims in his 10th Floor office undermined by the "parameters" dictated from the 12th Floor suites occupied by Bevilacqua, his vicar-general and their staffs.

While his lawyers' tack would seem to indicate a degree of independence, under cross-examination the defendant unwittingly cited the main roadblock to persuading the jury of his innocence.

"When the bishop tells you to do something," Lynn said, "you do it."

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On several levels, the Philadelphia trial has made for a unique moment in the Catholic world's long, crushing road of abuse scandals.

Beyond being the first criminal process in the English-speaking church to probe an administrator's response to allegations, the trial has provided the most in-depth look at a US Chancery's handling of cases thanks to years of subpoenas, which saw several thousand internal diocesan files turned over to prosecutors, no shortage of which would emerge in court.

Of these, the trial has notably been the first American proceeding to obtain and employ items from a local church's secret archive. Despite the provision of Canon 489, which mandates the presence of such a space in every Chancery, Lynn and his deputies testified that they had no idea of the archive's existence until taking up their posts in the Clergy Office, while lawyers from both sides and media coverage alike have uniformly portrayed the secret collection as something both sinister by design and particular to Philadelphia. In reality, as one former Lynn aide, Msgr Michael McCulken, testified yesterday, aside from the abuse files, the secret archive otherwise contained records of testimony from the beatification process of the now-canonized Mother Katharine Drexel and "the wills of the bishops of Pennsylvania." (By court order, all witnesses are barred from speaking elsewhere until the trial is concluded.)

Said to have housed the files of priests accused of abuse before a 1988 reorganization of the archdiocesan Curia, the Philadelphia secret archive was separate from "File 3," or the records of priests subsequently accused of misconduct, which were kept in the Clergy office. Yet even as the relevant canons stipulate that "only the [diocesan] bishop is to have the key" to the secret archive, the two locked cabinets in a 12th Floor record room have come to dominate the trial's focus in light of a 1994 memo prepared by Lynn from their contents, on what he's stated to be his own volition.

Listing 35 priests accused of abuse -- most of whom maintained full faculties at the time and for years afterward -- what was believed to be all remaining copies of the document were shredded on Bevilacqua's orders, according to a handwritten memo found on a surprise surviving copy, which was located on the cracking of a long-untouched Chancery safe in 2006, but only given to prosecutors in the weeks following Bevilacqua's death on 31 January of this year.

In his testimony, Lynn said he "probably" typed up the list, which he compiled with his then-deputy, Msgr James Beisel, during "after hours" sessions spent in the archive over several weeks in early 1994. Having testified to the first of two grand juries a decade ago that he knew of the list, but not where it could be found, Lynn said today that he only learned a copy still existed earlier this year, when the prosecution notified his attorneys that the file had emerged.

According to the surviving copy, the others were shredded by Msgr James Molloy -- the deputy to Bevilacqua's first vicar-general, auxiliary Bishop Edward Cullen -- "in the presence of" then-Fr Joseph Cistone, who would succeed Cullen in the #2 slot in 1998, remaining there until his transfer to the bishopric of Saginaw in 2009.

Now 79, Cullen became bishop of Allentown in 1997 and retired in 2009. Named rector of St Charles Borromeo Seminary, Overbrook later in 1994, then to a suburban pastorate five years later, Molloy died of a reported heart attack in 2006.

At one point in today's testimony, asked about another handwritten notation on a different memo stating that the archdiocese did not probe anonymous allegations of abuse, Lynn said that the script -- previously attributed to Molloy -- wasn't written by the late monsignor, "but the cardinal."

After replying to another question over the whether the general policy on handling allegations and reassigning accused clerics had come from Bevilacqua, Judge M. Teresa Sarmina interjected to ask how Lynn was aware of it.

Having turned red in the face for much of his testimony, the monsignor said that understanding had been made clear to him "by Molloy and Cullen."

In their respective turns, Lynn and his deputies said that all but one of the victims who came forward over their years in the Clergy Office had been adults. In the lone case of a minor who reported abuse, the priest was prosecuted; the victim's family had contacted the civil authorities before coming to the archdiocese.

In his Tuesday testimony, McCulken said that, while Lynn always acted "with compassion" for victims and their office would "drop everything" when an allegation came in, civil authorities were never alerted to allegations brought to the archdiocese as the church's legal counsel advised that no mandatory reporting requirement existed, and the statute of limitations on the cases had lapsed.

Asked if he had done enough, Lynn replied that "I did my best, with the parameters given to me." When queried why parishioners were "left in the dark" when an accused priest was publicly placed on an unspecified health leave, the monsignor said that "a mental health concern is a health concern."

Bevilacqua "didn't allow" public disclosure of abuse claims, Lynn said.

Begun with a reference to Luke 17:2 and a rare courtroom quote from the Baltimore Catechism, prosecution questioning of the monsignor is slated to continue tomorrow morning. The jury is likely to have the case either late next week or shortly thereafter.

At the close of the prosecution's case last week, Sarmina dropped a conspiracy charge against Lynn and his co-defendant, James Brennan -- a suspended diocesan priest indicted over the alleged abuse of a boy in the late 1990s -- on grounds that the state failed to prove the claim that the duo conspired with each other.

The monsignor remains charged on two counts on endangering the welfare of a minor. Brennan's abuse charge likewise remains unchanged.

Two other men indicted by the 2011 grand jury -- a religious priest and lay teacher, both charged with abuse -- are slated to face criminal trial in September.

* * *

On an atmospheric note, Room 304 isn't exactly an easy place to get to.

After passing through the airport-style metal detectors and putting one's belongings through an X-ray machine downstairs, a second, police-monitored checkpoint stands at the courtroom door to keep Sarmina's gadget ban intact. The combination of that ruling and a gag order on all parties to the case -- which, despite the lack of a corporate indictment, extends to the archdiocese -- is, as one local newsroom staffer recently lamented, "killing us" (i.e. the region's media) in terms of coverage.

Then again, for all the attention this trial has garnered in church circles well beyond the nation's fourth-largest TV market, here at home, even its bigger days clearly haven't been deemed the stuff of ratings gold. For example, today's testimony by Lynn was universally given the third, or even fourth story-slot on the city's evening newscasts, following a gridlock-inducing mass protest by public school workers whose jobs are under threat, a fresh sexual-assault arrest involving a teacher at a suburban public high school, and -- per usual for modern local news -- the Memorial Day weekend forecasts.

Beyond these, though, what many ad intra folk have come to see as the Stateside church's "Trial of the Century" has come to be eclipsed on its own turf by the wintertime announcement that 34 parochial schools in the 1.2 million-member Philadelphia church will close next month. Furious as the locals might've been about last year's second grand jury, only at the schools news -- the largest single consolidation of Catholic education ever undertaken by an American diocese -- did upwards of 2,000 people take to one neighborhood's streets to protest, while at least one enraged group attempted to break down the doors of a rectory whose pastor declined to appeal his school's merger. (In the archdiocese at large, the number of Baptisms has fallen by some 45 percent since 1991, while the rate of Catholic marriages conducted has plummeted by more than half. Some 35 Philadelphia Catholic schools had already been closed or consolidated over the last decade.)

All the while, the relative frenzy surrounding the start of Lynn's defense has ended up distracting the local press from what's likely to be the next major disclosure to hit.

After months of chatter indicating some degree of imminent fiscal doom, this Wednesday saw the first briefing of the Philly church's freshly-installed CFO, Timothy O'Shaughnessy, to the archdiocese's pastors on a dire financial state of the beleaguered onetime "empire." (O'Shaughnessy took office in April, nine months after his predecessor, Anita Guzzardi, was removed from the post on being found to have spent in excess of $900,000 in diocesan funds for her personal expenses, including credit-card bills and casino trips. After a civil investigation, Guzzardi was arrested by city officials earlier this year on criminal charges related to the theft.)

A second regional meeting with priests will be held tomorrow, and while the archdiocese has traditionally issued a financial report in late June -- just prior to the July 1st start of its next fiscal year -- for the past decade, a source speculated earlier this week that "the pink slips are about to go out" at its downtown headquarters.

In a March column, Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap. previewed the impending release by saying that "Much of this year’s financial information will be new. Some of it will be quite sobering. Nonetheless, beginning this year and every year in the future, we will provide to our people as full a picture of our financial life as a church as we reasonably can."

"We can’t be confident about the future, we can’t even begin to solve our problems, unless we’re well informed," the Capuchin prelate said.

As the charges against Lynn pertain to official acts, among other extraordinary expenses of these days, the archdiocese is footing the bill for the monsignor's counsel at the ongoing trial.

PHOTO: Getty