New court filing says Allentown bishop, four others knew of 35 allegedly abusive priests
The Morning Call
10:30 p.m. EST, March 3, 2012
By Peter Hall and Matt Assad, Of The Morning Call
Allentown Bishop Edward Cullen was one of three high ranking clergy present when Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua ordered aides to shred a list of priests suspected of sexually abusing children. (Mariella Savidge, TMC / February 27, 2009)
Nearly two decades ago, Allentown Bishop Edward Cullen was one of two or three high-ranking clergy present when the head of the Philadelphia Archdiocese ordered the shredding of a list of 35 priests suspected of sexually abusing children, according to a recent court filing in Philadelphia.
A copy of that list and a 1994 memo recording Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua‘s instructions to destroy it has turned up in the case of Monsignor William Lynn, a former archdiocesan official charged with endangering the welfare of children and conspiracy for allegedly enabling priests to molest children.
Lynn’s attorneys have claimed the documents are proof of a conspiracy by Bevilacqua; Cullen, who was then the cardinal’s top aide; Cullen’s then assistant, Monsignor James Molloy; and Lynn’s then assistant, the Rev. Joseph Cistone, to hide sexual abuse allegations. They called for the dismissal of charges against Lynn, which were filed last year after the second of two Philadelphia grand jury investigations into allegations of sexual abuse by priests.
“This startling revelation raises clear issues as to whether Cardinal Bevilacqua, Bishops Cullen and Cistone and Monsignor Molloy obstructed justice in connection with grand jury I,” Lynn’s lawyers Jeff Lindy and Thomas Bergstrom wrote in a motion to dismiss the case.
In response, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office made clear the documents could expand the scope of its case.
“It is possible that the new evidence could lead to new charges — including new charges against [Lynn]. But whether others are charged now or in the future is irrelevant to the charges for which defendant is now on trial,” Assistant District Attorney Mariana Sorensen wrote.
A judge last week denied Lynn’s request to have the case dismissed after prosecutors argued against his claim that he wasn’t part of the alleged conspiracy. Sorensen said the newly disclosed list and memo are “the equivalent of a smoking gun” for the prosecution’s case.
Lynn, who was the archdiocese’s secretary of clergy from 1992 until 2004 and is the only church official in the nation to be charged with covering up sexual abuse, is scheduled to stand trial this month with two priests accused of sexually abusing a boy in the 1990s.
Cullen, 78, is likely to land on the witness stand because he and Cistone, who now is bishop of Saginaw, Mich., are the only two living church officials named in the newly disclosed documents. Bevilacqua died in January and Molloy died in 2006.
Church attorney Timothy Coyne testified last month that when he asked Cullen and others about the list during the first grand jury probe, each said they didn’t know where the list was. The first grand jury report in 2005 does not include Cullen’s answer to Coyne’s question. But it does note, “Cullen instructed his assistant, James Molloy (who at times displayed glimpses of compassion for victims), never to tell victims that he believed them. Doing so would have made evident the church officials’ knowledge of other criminal acts and made later denials difficult.”
Cullen, who was head of the Allentown Diocese from 1998 until his retirement in 2009, declined to talk to a reporter last week at his home in Lower Macungie Township.
Matt Kerr, spokesman for the Allentown Diocese of more than 276,000 Catholics, would not comment on the Philadelphia case, but noted that as bishop of Allentown, Cullen took allegations of sexual assault by priests seriously.
Kerr pointed out Cullen cooperated with the five district attorneys in the diocese, and appointed the first diocesan victim assistance coordinator and the first diocesan review board. In fact, Cullen removed eight diocesan priests over allegations of abuse. He also initiated background checks for priests and laypeople and offered counseling to abuse victims.
A locksmith and a list
Days after Bevilacqua’s death Jan. 31, in a turn lifted from the pages of a legal thriller, the church’s lawyers disclosed to prosecutors a file they had discovered in 2006 when a locksmith cracked a dusty safe in Lynn’s former office.
Inside was a copy of Lynn’s list, placed there, Lynn’s attorneys say, by Molloy.
At the same time, church officials also disclosed to prosecutors Molloy’s handwritten note detailing Bevilacqua’s instructions to destroy the list and recording that he shredded four copies, including Cullen’s, with Cistone as a witness.
“It is crucial to note that the memo reflects that the directive for the shredding came at a March 15, 1994 issues meeting attended by Cardinal Bevilacqua, Bishop Cullen and Monsignor Molloy,” Lynn’s attorneys wrote in their Feb. 24 filing.
At the very least, the existence of the list supports the central claims in both the criminal case against Lynn and civil cases against the archdiocese, say lawyers familiar with the church abuse scandal.
“It proves what a lot of people have been saying all along, that the cardinal and hierarchy of the archdiocese had knowledge that at least 35 of its priests, and probably more, were sexually abusing minors,” said Kenneth Millman, a Berks County attorney who represents a victim of one of the priests Lynn allegedly protected.
While the newly disclosed evidence is powerful, prosecutors would face a high bar to bring charges against Cullen or Cistone, said Barbara Ashcroft, a former sex crimes prosecutor who teaches at Temple University law school.
“The commonwealth would have to have substantial facts to support charges of conspiracy or obstruction of justice with regard to Cullen or Cistone,” she said.
Prosecutors would have to show the clerics had an agreement to destroy the lists and that they understood the significance of doing so, Ashcroft said.
Asked if Cistone would comment on the newly disclosed information in Lynn’s motion, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Saginaw referred questions to a Montgomery County attorney who represents Cistone. The attorney did not return a call last week.
Lynn’s trial threatens to shake the church to its core, said Rocco Palmo, a commentator for the National Catholic Reporter magazine.
“Every person who has survived from the senior administration of the Philadelphia diocese is fair game in this one,” Palmo said. “It’s going to be unlike any trial that the Catholic Church has ever had. We’ve never been here before and no one really knows what to expect.”
Palmo said what makes the trial so unpredictable, and potentially explosive, is that the judge is allowing all of the grand jury testimony and any testimony from past abuse cases.
“We’re talking about 50 years and 70 or 80 abuse cases,” Palmo said. “All bets are off on this one.”
While neither side disputes that Lynn is the author of the list, each presents dramatically different versions of his motives.
Lynn’s attorneys say he was spurred to action after he discovered the case of the Rev. James Dux, who was an active priest with an extensive history of sexual misconduct, and set out to identify others.
“He undertook this project on his own for the benefit of the faithful,” Lynn’s lawyers wrote.
But prosecutors say the project was an attempt to fortify the archdiocese against any civil litigation by abuse victims.
The list was discovered in a folder that also held notes from a strategy session on dealing with lawsuits and negative publicity. It also contained a letter from a Time magazine reporter with questions about pedophile priests in Philadelphia and references to a lawyer who had settled lawsuits against the Camden, N.J., diocese.
Whatever Lynn’s motive, the result of his research was a typewritten memo that identified three priests diagnosed as pedophiles, 12 who were the subject of allegations deemed credible by the archdiocese and 20 who were named in unsubstantiated allegations, according to court documents.
Lynn forwarded the list to his supervisor, Molloy, and was summoned to the March 15, 1994, issues meeting with Bevilacqua, Cullen and Molloy to discuss his findings, Lynn’s lawyers said.
It was after Lynn left that meeting that Bevilacqua gave his order to collect copies of the list and shred them, Lynn’s lawyers said.
But prosecutors say Lynn’s lawyers understated his role in the March 15 meeting, noting memos show it was moved from the cardinal’s home to the archdiocese offices to accommodate Lynn. The memos, they note, make no mention of Lynn leaving that meeting before Bevilacqua ordered the copies shredded.
Cullen described the meeting in a memo to Bevilacqua: “Father Lynn provided supplemental background concerning particular files for which additional information had been requested. Cardinal Bevilacqua and Bishop-elect Cullen returned to Monsignor Molloy their copies of the file listings so that the material might be shredded.”
The list might have been lost to history, Lynn’s lawyers say, except that Lynn placed a copy of his cover memo in Dux’s personnel file.
The cover memo, which discussed Lynn’s recommendation to retire Dux, also outlined the list and is the reason prosecutors began searching for it during the first grand jury investigation, which ended in 2005, a year before the list turned up in a locked safe.
But the prosecutors say Lynn’s assertion in his filing that he alerted them to the existence of the list in 2004 by placing it in Dux’s file is a stretch. Prosecutors point out that the grand jury noticed the reference to the list when Dux’s file was turned over in response to a subpoena.
“Lynn was asked repeatedly for the list itself and testified that he could not find it. That testimony is highly suspect now that the list has been found in a safe under Lynn’s control,” prosecutors said.
Lynn is using the documents now, prosecutors argued, as an excuse to fashion a new defense — “a combination of the dead-guys-did-it and I-was-only-following-orders defenses.”
In fact, prosecutors said, the new evidence demonstrates Lynn had possession of the list during the first grand jury investigation, when he testified he could not find it.
The list shows Lynn knew in 1994 that one of his co-defendants, the Rev. Edward Avery, had a record of sexual misconduct, and Lynn still recommended him for positions where he had contact with children, the prosecution’s response says.
“[The documents] show Lynn to be the most active participant in a well-orchestrated conspiracy among archdiocese officials to cover up the sexual crimes of priests and to keep known child molesters in active ministry,” Sorensen, the assistant district attorney, wrote.
Jury selection for Lynn’s trial concluded last week. Testimony is scheduled to begin March 26.