Prosecutor grills Lynn about protecting minors

When Monsignor William Lynn took the witness stand in his own defense, he testified repeatedly that he did the best he could, within his limited power, to investigate child sex abuse allegations that had been made against parish priests.

But Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington was having none of it. On cross-examination, Blessington went on the attack, asking if Lynn’s best efforts had saved a Northeast boy from a priest who was a molester.

Lynn, who is on trial in Common Pleas Court on charges he had endangered children by shielding predator priests, answered that he tried to put the concerns of sex abuse victims first.

“Every time, you put the victim first?” asked the ADA, his voice dripping with hostility.

“I believe I did,” said Lynn, who was briefly flustered. “I did my best.”

But that wasn’t good enough for [the young Northeast victim], was it? Blessington asked.

That victim, who was named in court last week, was a 10-year-old St. Jerome’s parish altar boy in the 1990s when he was molested by the Rev. Edward Avery.

“I did the best I could…with the parameters that were given to me,” Lynn replied.

Lynn, the first high-ranking Roman Catholic administrator charged in an American sex abuse case, took the stand in his own defense on Wednesday, a day after the defense opened.

And although a strict judicial gag order barred information leaks about the case, news that Lynn would take the stand had been well-circulated before he was sworn in. Courtroom seats reserved for Lynn’s family and benches set aside for journalists were packed.

Lynn’s demeanor was calm and agreeable when he answered questions posed by his own attorney, Thomas Bergstrom. He maintained that he was not the man who made the final decisions about assigning priests accused of, and sometimes treated for, sexual misconduct. It had been the prosecution’s contention through eight weeks of testimony that Lynn could have kept clerical molesters away from children, but didn’t.

Lynn, however, said he only could make recommendations to his superiors. He could remove a priest accused of sexual misconduct only if the priest admitted it. Otherwise, he would ask the priest to voluntarily submit to a psychological evaluation, and most agreed. If the priest did not comply on his own, Lynn said he could recommend to his superiors that the tests be conducted. Lynn testified he could also recommend, but could not order, treatment if it were needed.

Lynn was on the stand all day Wednesday and returned for a second day of testimony on Thursday. The trial, in Courtroom 304 of the Criminal Justice Center, resumes on Tuesday.

The monsignor, who handled clerical sexual abuse allegations during his 12 years as secretary for clergy under Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, is, in a very real sense, a veteran witness.

He testified in 2002, 2003 and 2004 before a Philadelphia grand jury that was investigating sex abuse allegations, he told the court on Wednesday.

A second grand jury, whose work led to Lynn’s arrest in early 2011, mentions him frequently in its report, stating that his “institutional laxness” left two predator priests in place to continue molesting minors.

Although those most recent grand jurors listed years of cases involving Lynn’s work for the cardinal, they called for the arrests of Lynn, Avery, the Rev. James Brennan, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and former Catholic lay teacher Bernard Shero because Pennsylvania’s Legislature had changed the statute of limitations on sex molestation crimes in 2002 and 2006. All but Lynn were charged with molesting minors in the 1990s. In their report released in February 2011, the grand jury alleged Lynn endangered children.

They also said he lied to Avery’s parishioners when he was sent away for treatment at St. John Vianney, a suburban hospital owned by the archdiocese. On cross-examination, Blessington asked Lynn if he had hidden the truth about Avery’s treatment, and had lied to victims about priests having other victims. Lynn said he had not.

Members of the recent grand jury, however, said Lynn had told parishioners to disregard any “untoward reports” concerning Avery as mere rumors. Lynn reassured those parishioners, the grand jury wrote, that he knew of nothing but favorable remarks about Avery.

In court on Wednesday, Lynn testified he had handled more than 30 cases involving alleged sexual misconduct by priests and had lied one time when questioned about a priest’s absence from his parish.

In that case, he said, he was following Bevilacqua’s instructions.

“The cardinal didn’t allow us to announce in those days why someone was leaving,” Lynn said. “I was following the directions I got,” he said later.

Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina asked Lynn how he got those directions. He replied they came through his immediate superiors, Bishop Edward Cullen and Monsignor James Molloy. Those men reported to the cardinal, who died in January.

Parishioners were told a priest was leaving for health reasons, Lynn said, answering Blessington.

“Mental health is health,” Lynn said.

The archdiocese precipitated the grand jury probe in 2009 when it reported Avery and Engelhardt to authorities.

Engelhardt, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales who taught at Father Judge and North Catholic high schools, was accused of molesting the young St. Jerome altar boy in the 1990s. Grand jurors charged Avery had molested the same boy at the Winchester Park parish. Jurors said Avery had referred to Engelhardt’s encounters with the boy as “sessions,” a term Engelhardt allegedly had used.

In March, a week before he was set to go on trial with Lynn and Brennan, Avery pleaded guilty and was immediately sentenced to two and half years to five years imprisonment. All others have maintained their innocence.

Although Lynn had said he could not assign priests to specific duties or parishes, the grand jury said Lynn had recommended Avery’s St. Jerome parish assignment even though he had investigated him for alleged sexual abuse of a minor, had arranged for his treatment and had known he should not be near children.

St. Jerome parish is mentioned several times in the grand jury’s report. The victim, whom jurors identified as “Billy” in that report, the next year was raped by Shero, then a lay teacher in parish school, they charged.

Brennan, who is charged with molesting a teenage boy in the suburbs, at one point in his career, lived at St. Jerome’s rectory.

Shero and Engelhardt will go on trial in September. Brennan, who is accused of the attempted rape of a Bucks County teenage boy, is represented in this trial by William Brennan, who has reminded jurors throughout the trial that his client, who is no relation, has had nothing to do with any of the cases prosecutors brought up as they made their case against Lynn. The monsignor is charged with knowing about allegations against Brennan and also keeping him in a public ministry where he could have access to children.

Lynn said he believed that God’s will came through his bishop.

“When a bishop told you to do something, you did it,” Lynn said.

Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215–354–3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com