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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

In a Philadelphia courtroom today, jurors will hear closing arguments in the first case of a high-level official in the American Catholic Church being put on trial in a sex-abuse scandal. William Lynn, a monsignor in the archdiocese of Philadelphia, is being tried for his involvement in covering up child abuse. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Journalist Ralph Cipriano has listened through nearly 10 weeks of testimony in the trial of Monsignor Lynn. For most of that time, he says, prosecutors put on a powerful case that Lynn, who was in charge of investigating sex- abuse claims from 1992 to 2004, protected the priests and the church - not the children.

RALPH CIPRIANO: A month ago, there was just a sense that the prosecution was way ahead; that the evidence was so stacked up against the monsignor that all the prosecution had to do is play it safe.

HAGERTY: Then Lynn went on the stand, Cipriano says, and argued that he did everything within his power to protect children.

CIPRIANO: Now, there's a sense that the defense is picking up steam and the prosecution is clearly losing steam.

HAGERTY: That won't last long, says Marci Hamilton, a professor at Cardozo Law School who has represented victims.

MARCI HAMILTON: The evidence was gathered over a decade. It is a mountain of evidence.

HAGERTY: Two grand jury reports, nearly 2,000 documents and 50 witnesses, some of them alleged victims who wept on the stand - Hamilton says the evidence is incontrovertible.

HAMILTON: Time after time after time, Monsignor Lynn, and those in the hierarchy in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, ignored the needs of children and put their cohorts - their own priests - into positions to abuse more children.

HAGERTY: That word - hierarchy - points to Lynn's main line of defense.

JOE MAHER: They're holding Lynn ultimately responsible when he is not ultimately responsible. That would have been Cardinal Bevilacqua.

HAGERTY: Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua - who died earlier this year - alone had the power to remove or transfer priests, says Joe Maher, president of Opus Bono Sacerdotii, an organization that supports priests.

MAHER: And Lynn would have been carrying out what Cardinal Bevilacqua would have requested him to carry out.

HAGERTY: Lynn's attorneys are trying to use that low-man-on-the-totem-pole theory to undercut a powerful piece of evidence. In 1994, Lynn compiled a list of 35 priests who were known or suspected abusers, and then he allowed them to stay in ministry. Ralph Cipriano says prosecutors represented this as a smoking gun.

CIPRIANO: But the next week, the defense came back and - very effectively, I thought - turned that smoking gun around and used it for their own purposes. And by the time they were done, the smoking gun was pointing at Cardinal Bevilacqua and his top aide.

HAGERTY: Because documents show Bevilacqua took Lynn's list and files away from him, and then ordered them shredded. Marci Hamilton notes that a diskette of the list was found with Lynn's personal items. As to the idea that Lynn was just following orders...

HAMILTON: He was not a puppet. He was an active participant.

HAGERTY: And, she says, it is not a legal defense. Under the law, Lynn had a duty to protect children.

HAMILTON: He had the power to pick up the telephone, to call the police. He had the power to tell parishioners the truth. He had the power to warn parents at schools. He didn't do any of that.

HAGERTY: As jurors hear closing arguments and head to the jury room, they will consider stark evidence that something terrible happened for years in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The question for jurors is: Who is to blame?

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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