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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

Jury selection begins next week in the trial of Monsignor William Lynn. He's a senior cleric in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Lynn is the first high-level Catholic leader to go to trial for allegedly covering up sex abuse claims. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Between 1992 and 2004, Monsignor Lynn was the point person in Philadelphia for allegations of clerical abuse. When he heard a claim, he was supposed to investigate, and if warranted, remove or turn in the priest. But as two grand juries reported in 2005 and 2011, that often did not happen. Law professor Marci Hamilton was a consultant to the first grand jury.

MARCI HAMILTON: He willingly oversaw numerous reports of child sex abuse. And he willingly put these men in positions where they had second, third, fourth opportunities to abuse children in new settings.

HAGERTY: In most of those cases, the statute of limitations meant that prosecutors could not bring a case. But two cases have not expired, and prosecutors say that by looking the other way, Lynn criminally endangered two young men who were allegedly raped when they were 10 and 14.

Hamilton says the evidence against Lynn is extraordinary. Indeed, Lynn himself told the grand jury that he let allegations, quote, "fall through the cracks," and did not tell schools or parishes about alleged abusers because, quote, "You don't always put all your dirty laundry out." Now the judge has ruled that some of that evidence can be introduced at trial, including how Monsignor Lynn handled the cases of 22 priests who are accused of abuse.

HAMILTON: That's very, very harmful to his case, because it shows none of this was just random or arbitrary, but rather that he was engaged in a conspiracy to put children at risk, and he did it repeatedly.

HAGERTY: The judge has prohibited all attorneys involved in the case from speaking about it. But Janis Smarro, a criminal law attorney in Philadelphia with no connection to the trial, says it may not be a slam dunk for the prosecutors. She says Lynn may have a strong legal defense.

JANIS SMARRO: And that is that the statute, as written at that time, does not cover Monsignor Lynn.

HAGERTY: Under that statute, a person could be criminally prosecuted if he endangered the welfare of a child by being aware of the threat to the child and failing to protect him or her. But, she says...

SMARRO: Normally, it covers the situation where the person has a direct duty to a specific child - for instance, a parent, a guardian, a babysitter, a nanny, something along those lines.

HAGERTY: The law has since been revised to include those who supervise the alleged abuser. But Lynn's lawyers say the stricter standard cannot be applied to their client. The actual trial is scheduled to begin in late March, and for the Catholic Church, it's a big deal.

NICHOLAS CAFARDI: Church people are watching this around the country very, very closely.

HAGERTY: Nicholas Cafardi is Dean Emeritus and law professor at Duquesne Law School. He says most Catholic dioceses have cracked down on pedophile priests, but there are some, like Philadelphia, that were slow to get the message. He says charging administrators in the church for covering up may be the only way to stop abuse.

CAFARDI: These prosecutions hopefully will make chancery officials aware that they, in fact, can themselves be criminally liable whenever they do these kinds of things.

HAGERTY: Marci Hamilton and many others believe that Monsignor Lynn will reach an agreement with prosecutors before the case goes to the jury.

HAMILTON: But he's going to have to go through a whole trial with the introduction of mountains of evidence that probably he and the archdiocese don't want publicly aired.

HAGERTY: She notes that high-level Catholic officials in other cities have been charged with covering up abuse, but they've always settled before the official has to take the stand. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: The officials referred to have been called to testify in abuse cases but were not themselves charged.]

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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