Pa. Monsignor On Trial For Covering Up Sex Abuse

Monsignor William Lynn, the highest ranking Catholic official to be criminally tried for covering up child sex abuse by priests, faced fierce questioning in a Philadelphia courtroom on Thursday. Lynn handled the sex abuse claims when he was secretary for clergy for more than a decade.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish.

And we go next to the trial of Monsignor William Lynn. He's the highest ranking Catholic official in the U.S. to be criminally tried for covering up child sex abuse by priests. His case is being heard right now in Philadelphia, and today, he faced fierce questioning. Monsignor Lynn handled sex abuse claims when he was secretary for clergy in Philadelphia's archdiocese. He's been charged with conspiracy and child endangerment.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty was in the courtroom today and joins us now. And, Barbara, to start, remind us the background of this case.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Sure, Audie. This stems from a grand jury report - actually a couple of them that found that many priests who are accused of abuse were still in ministry. And so prosecutors looked into it, and it turned out that only two of those cases of priests were fresh enough, that hadn't passed the statute of limitations. And so, this case is about those sex abuse cases.

Two people are charged in this case; one of them is a priest who's actually accused of abuse named James Brennan, the other is Monsignor William Lynn. He is charged with covering up the abuse when he was secretary for the clergy, between 1992 and 2004. And he is the highest ranking official ever to be criminally charged and prosecuted for covering up sex abuse.

CORNISH: So, Barbara, tell us what was it like in the courtroom today.

HAGERTY: Well, there was some fireworks. Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington came loaded for bear. He wasn't quite as aggressive as he was yesterday. But I got to say the questioning was really relentless and sharp. He essentially called Lynn a liar 14 times in one hour. He also argued that Lynn tried to protect the priests and the church, and not the children.

The prosecutor got Lynn to admit that he didn't follow up on anonymous allegations. And he said that Lynn misled victims by implying that priests were out of ministry when, in fact, they still had access to children. And at one point, Blessington said, how can you say you put children first? And Lynn replied, I did my best for the people who were injured by priests. Blessington said, by your standards, your best is nothing.

CORNISH: Now, Barbara, I gather it's a surprise that Monsignor Lynn actually took the stand. I mean, was this a good idea for his defense?

HAGERTY: Well, it's kind of hard to tell. I can say that the prosecutor was pretty relentless in chipping away at Lynn's credibility. And some of the documents did seem to suggest that Lynn was very interested in limiting the damage to the church.

On the other hand, I've got to say that sometimes it appeared the prosecutor was bullying this rather avuncular priest. But observers say that Lynn's attorneys really had to put him on the stand. I mean, this is their Hail Mary pass. For the past eight weeks, prosecutors have presented mountains of evidence that portray Lynn as a major player in a church-wide conspiracy to cover up sex abuse.

I mean, there were nearly 2,000 pages of documents, nearly 50 witnesses, including a dozen accusers who gave really graphic testimony about being molested by priests. Prosecutors say that Lynn knew all about the abuse. And, in fact, he even wrote a list of 35 priests who were known or suspected abusers, but, they say, he did nothing about it. So, really, after all this punishing testimony, Lynn's attorneys had to humanize him. And it may be working.

CORNISH: Now, the focus has been on William Lynn, but do you get the sense that the entire Archdiocese of Philadelphia really is what's on trial here?

HAGERTY: Yeah, that's absolutely right. Prosecutors are trying to build a case that Lynn and others above him protected the church and the priests and not the children. In fact, one of the main people on trial is Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua who actually died earlier this year. For example, according to a memo that was locked in an archdiocese's safe for 10 years, the cardinal ordered the list of 35 abusers that Lynn compiled to be shredded.

Lynn testified that Bevilacqua told the staff that when someone accused a priest of abuse, the staff was not to tell the accuser that there are other allegations against the priest, and that the cardinal did not let parishes tell the parishioners why a priest left. So it didn't look too good for Cardinal Bevilacqua.

CORNISH: Barbara, finally, what's next for this case?

HAGERTY: Well, after the cross examination of Lynn, attorneys for the other defendant in the case will present their side. Prosecutors say that Reverend James Brennan tried to rape a 14-year-old boy in 1996. The defense is going to portray him as a liar who made up the allegations to get money and explain why he used drugs and committed petty crime. And people think that we're going to go to closing arguments next week. Then it goes to the jury and who knows how long it will take them to decide.

CORNISH: NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty talking to us about the trial of Monsignor William Lynn. Barbara, thank you.

HAGERTY: You're welcome, Audie.

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