First Catholic paedophile cover-up trial set to start

2012-03-23 07:15

The landmark trial of a Catholic Church official accused of covering up paedophile abuses in the United States is set to start on Monday in Philadelphia.

Monsignor William Lynn, who oversaw the assignment of priests to schools and parishes across the Philadelphia region, faces accusations that he failed to keep priests accused of sexual abuse away from minors.

The role of such a senior official, whose co-defendant Reverend James Brennan is accused of sexually abusing boys in the 1990s, makes the trial the first of its kind in the United States.

In a surprise pretrial twist yesterday another co-defendant, defrocked priest Edward Avery, pleaded guilty to his own sex crimes, thereby avoiding trial. He was immediately sentenced to between two-and-a-half and five years in prison.

The accusations against the three men read like many other church sex abuse cover-ups, in which priests accused of wrongdoing were shuffled from one parish to another.

But with the trial attracting heavy media attention, the sordid details of the allegations will be in burning focus.

And with a high-up official in the dock for allegedly shielding perpetrators of sex abuse, the case threatens to widen the legal onslaught over a scandal that has already bled the Catholic Church of credibility and money.

“If these ranks of middle managers from which the bishops are drawn, if this really starts to be scrutinised, the people who have become bishops are going to be caught in the web,” Terry McKiernan, from the website, which tracks reported abuses, told AFP.

“That’s a mess that the church in the US does not want opened.”

The case as a whole can be dated back to 1992, when a former parishioner accused Avery of molesting him in the 1970s or 1980s.

The allegations were deemed serious enough that Avery was sent to a facility specialising in rehabilitation of sex offender priests.

As secretary for the clergy between 1992 and 2004, Lynn was responsible for investigating of reports of abuse. Yet he never stopped Avery.

When Avery had completed his programme, Lynn assigned him to a parish with a school, despite the fact that Avery’s therapist warned against putting him around children.

At that parish, Avery allegedly encountered a 10-year-old altar boy referred to in court documents as “Bill” and abused him.

In another incident described in court documents, Brennan allegedly raped a 14-year-old boy during a sleepover at Brennan’s apartment in 1996.

Even after that boy’s parents reported the rape to the archdiocese, Lynn did not take action beyond transferring Brennan within the Philadelphia region.

Defence lawyers are casting doubt on the credibility of two alleged victims who have long histories of drug abuse and also are looking to sue the archdiocese for millions of dollars in a civil suit.

“He has the pecuniary interest plus the motive to lay blame for his drug abuse,” Avery’s defence attorney, Michael Wallace, said of one of the accusers at a pre-trial hearing on Wednesday.

Attorney Greg Gianforcaro, who has sued the church on behalf of other alleged victims, says the tactic, common in traditional rape cases, exploits the fact that “childhood sexual abuse by its very nature is a crime that is committed in silence”.

The prosecution stems from a grand jury report released in 2011. That probe, like two grand jury investigations preceding it, chastised Lynn and his superior, Archbishop Anthony Bevilacqua, for not rooting out abusive priests.

“Lynn was carrying out the Cardinal’s policies exactly as the Cardinal directed. In most of the cases we reviewed from the previous grand jury report, Cardinal Bevilacqua knew substantially everything that Lynn knew about the danger posed by the accused priests,” the grand jury report said.

Bevilacqua died January 31, one day after the judge in the case, Teresa Sarmina, ordered him to testify at the trial. So alarmed were prosecutors at the coincidence, that they requested an autopsy. Results showed no signs of foul play.

The trial is expected to last up to four months. Lynn faces a maximum prison sentence of 14 years if found guilty.

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