In Pa. abuse trial, a window into church practices

March 25, 2012 - 3:15 PM
Priest Abuse Trial

In this March 22, 2012 photo, Arthur Baselice Jr., poses for a photograph with a picture of his son Arthur Baselice III, in Mantua, N.J. Arthur III overdosed in 2006, after his 2004 civil suit accusing a Philadelphia priest of abuse was thrown out. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A landmark priest-abuse trial opening Monday in Philadelphia may unveil the cryptic operations of a Roman Catholic archdiocese and detail how child sex-abuse complaints were buried for decades in secret archives adjacent to a soaring cathedral as the priests they named went unpunished.

Monsignor William Lynn is the first U.S. church official ever charged with endangering children for allegedly failing to oust accused predators from ministry. But he may not be the last.

Philadelphia prosecutors say he helped carry out "an archdiocesan-wide policy ... (that) was criminal in nature." And they've hinted they could charge others when the trial ends.

Civil lawyers believe the trial will help them refile priest-abuse lawsuits that were thrown out in Pennsylvania because of legal time limits, or persuade the state legislature to open a window for filing child sex-abuse claims.

"The evidence that has come out about the conspiracy and the cover-up and the level of officialdom involved in it is going to help us," said lawyer Jay Abramowitch, whose priest-abuse lawsuit involving 18 accusers was thrown out by the state Supreme Court in 2005.

Also on trial is the Rev. James Brennan who, like Lynn, pleaded not guilty. Last week, a third man, defrocked priest Edward Avery, 69, pleaded guilty to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and conspiracy to endanger the welfare of a child. He was sentenced to 2½ to five years in prison and ordered to surrender within 10 days.

Lynn remains the focal point of the trial because the 61-year-old was the secretary for clergy at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004.

Lynn argues that he prepared a list of 37 accused priests in 1994, and sent it up the chain to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua — only to have Bevilacqua have it shredded. The cardinal died this year, but his videotaped deposition could be played at trial.

The trial will be followed by concerned Catholics across the country, including some who say their lives were destroyed.

"It gives me hope that it's going to raise public awareness, and it's going to expose the church — what they knew, when they knew it," said Art Baselice Jr. of Mantua, N.J., a retired Philadelphia homicide detective.

His son, Arthur III, overdosed in 2006, after his civil suit accusing a Philadelphia priest of abuse was thrown out.

Philadelphia prosecutors, too, blasted Bevilacqua, Lynn and other church officials for looking away as scores of accusers streamed into the archdiocese over several decades. Prosecutors detailed their findings in a 2005 grand jury report, but said they could not charge anyone because the statute of limitations had expired.

But last year, they filed a second grand jury report based on recent complaints filed within newly expanded time limits.

Lynn faces two counts each of conspiracy and child endangerment and up to 28 years in prison if convicted.

Four others — two priests, an ex-priest and a Catholic school teacher — were charged with rape. The report involves just two accusers.

One man says he was passed around by two priests, including Avery, and his Catholic school teacher in 1998-99.

"When Mass was ended, Fr. (Edward) Avery took the fifth-grader into the sacristy, turned on the music, and ordered him to perform a 'striptease' for him. ... When they were both naked, the priest had the boy sit on his lap and kissed his neck and back, while saying to him that God loved him," the report alleges, followed by oral sex and penetration.

Avery was at the parish despite a credible 1992 complaint that led him to undergo psychological testing. He was pulled from his parish, put on a so-called health leave and then reassigned in 1993.

Defense lawyers plan to attack accusers' motives, arguing that they are out for money or hope to explain away their troubled lives. Both accusers have criminal records and a history of drug addiction.

The trial is sure to be painful for priests across the archdiocese as well. Pastors will testify against church leaders, complaining they were never told when accused priests were assigned to their parishes.

The Rev. Chris Walsh started the Association of Philadelphia Priests last year, so the 800 priests in the archdiocese can share support and information.

"The priests want the same thing as the lay people," Walsh said Thursday. "We want to know what happened. And, if possible, why it happened.

"The gospel says the truth will set you free. Let's find out what the truth is."