Trial can go forward in Philly church abuse case

Pictured (top row from left): Edward Avery, Charles Engelhardt, and James Brennan. (Bottom row from left) Teacher Bernard Shero and Monsignor William Lynn.

March 25, 2011 3:21:46 PM PDT
The Roman Catholic archdiocese of Philadelphia faces the prospect of a hard-fought criminal trial over its handling of the priest-abuse scandal after a judge on Friday upheld child-endangerment charges against a high-ranking church official.

Four co-defendants - two priests, an ex-priest and a former Catholic school teacher - are charged with raping children. The ruling, issued at a sometimes heated hearing, denied lawyers the chance to fight the charges at a preliminary stage.

Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes said a 124-page grand jury report issued last month demonstrates probable cause, even on newly added conspiracy charges. She also issued a gag order, preventing parties from publicly discussing the case.

The case is drawing special attention because prosecutors for the first time charged a church official for allegedly transferring predator priests to new parishes without warning, thereby exposing more children to them.

Monsignor William Lynn, the former secretary for clergy, faces up to 28 years in prison if convicted.

The archdiocese will continue to pay his legal fees, even though the judge warned Lynn that his legal strategy may come to conflict with the church's.

Lynn said he understood the potential conflict but accepted the arrangement, at least for now. Friends have offered to help with his legal bills if he later needs it, he added. Lynn also had counsel provided by the archdiocese during an earlier grand jury investigation of pedophile priests, which culminated with a damning 2005 grand jury report, but no criminal charges.

"Their interests may not align with yours," Cardwell Hughes told him Friday, "if you reach a point where the archdiocese says, `We don't want you to do X because X exposes the archdiocese to liability, criminally or civilly, or X exposes the archdiocese to negative publicity."'

"It may be in your best interest to attack certain people," Cardwell Hughes warned the monsignor, who has been put on administrative leave by the archdiocese.

"I do understand that," Lynn said.

The five priests were ordered to return to court for formal arraignment April 15. All have signaled their intent to fight the charges.

The two-hour hearing on various pretrial motions featured heated exchanges between the judge and defense lawyers for the five men.

Two priests, 64-year-old Charles Engelhardt and 47-year-old James Brennan, along with 68-year-old former priest Edward Avery and 48-year-old teacher Bernard Shero, are charged with rape and related crimes dating to the 1990s.

Cardwell Hughes oversaw the yearlong grand jury investigation, which featured 24 witnesses and yielded more than 10,000 documents. The trial judge has not yet been assigned.

Defense lawyers asked her to step down from deciding preliminary objections to the charges, given her grand jury role, but she refused - and frequently took offense.

She twice told a defense lawyer, as he pressed her on a point, to "shut up."

Audience members who packed into the small courtroom could glean bits and pieces of each side's case from the arguments.

A lawyer for Brennan, charged with raping a 14-year-old boy, said he wanted the right to question the victim at a preliminary hearing about whether the alleged sex included penetration, as the rape charge would require.

City prosecutors, meanwhile, revealed that they may need to call that lawyer, Richard DiSipio, as a witness.

DeSipio studied at St. Charles Borromeo, the archdiocesan seminary, in the late 1970s and early 1980s before becoming a sex-crimes prosecutor for the city and then a defense lawyer. According to prosecutors, he may have information about an alleged sexual assault reported by a fellow seminarian during their student days. Lynn was dean at the time.

The assault is not part of the crimes charged but could be introduced to show prior bad conduct, according to the judge, who gave prosecutors time to decide whether to seek his removal from the case.

Lynn, 60, served as secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004 under former Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.

The Feb. 10 grand jury report blasted both Bevilacqua and his successor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, for their handling of priest-abuse complaints, but said there was not enough evidence to charge them with any crimes.

Load Comments