Years of work by Philadelphia D.A.’s Office led to priests’ trial

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25 June 2012

By Joseph A. Slobodzian

Inquirer Staff Writer

District Attorney Seth Williams

District Attorney Seth Williams

The guilty verdict against Msgr. William J. Lynn – the first time a Catholic church supervisor has been found criminally liable for child-sex crimes by a priest – concluded one of the most unusual prosecutions in the history of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

It took nine years, two grand juries, and changes in Pennsylvania law.

And it made odd partners of former District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham and successor Seth Williams, whose relationship soured when Williams, a former Abraham prosecutor, challenged her in the 2005 Democratic primary.

Ironically, both prosecutors had to fend off criticism over their religions.

Abraham was criticized because she is Jewish and was investigating the Catholic Church; Williams, campaigning for election in 2009, defended himself against suggestions he would go easy on the church because he is an active Catholic.

No priests were charged with sex abuse of minors during Abraham’s tenure. But law enforcement insiders who worked for both D.A.s say it would be wrong to give credit solely to Williams for the 2011 charges brought against Lynn, three former priests, and a parochial school teacher.

Rather, it was the dogged work of a small, evolving group of prosecutors and detectives whose work spanned both administrations and ultimately led to charges.

“This monumental case in many ways will change the way business has been done,” Williams said after the jury found Lynn guilty of one count of child endangerment, which could send him to jail for up to seven years.

Williams praised the jurors who sat through 11 weeks of testimony and deliberated for 121/2 days: “These were lay people thrust into a historic trial and this had never happened before in America.

“They got the message, and they convicted Msgr. Lynn on the most serious charge that he faced.”

Abraham agreed that the two charges of which Lynn was acquitted and the hung verdicts against the Rev. James J. Brennan were not the point.

“This was really very much a victory for the victims of sexual abuse,” Abraham said after Friday’s verdict. “They came and testified and were believed . . . I think this is a strong message to the community that the church can no longer hide behind the lies and the deceit that they have hidden behind for decades.”

After the February 2011 grand jury report recommended charges, Williams, in an Inquirer interview, stressed, “This isn’t a witch-hunt. This isn’t some sort of anti-Catholic crusade.”

He said the case was about “knowing that children should have been protected from abuse and not doing enough to notify people to ensure that it wouldn’t happen . . .. It could have been Baptists. It could have been Quakers. It could have been atheists. This is about us going after pedophiles.”

Abraham, a garrulous politico who often spent weekends visiting churches and synagogues, said she was infuriated by evidence that church officials moved pedophile priests among parishes without concern for future victims.

“It’s a great religion, but the guys in charge are a bunch of scoundrels,” she said. “There are wonderful priests. I feel sorry for them and the other religious who take and live the vow exactly as they should, with modesty and obedience.”

Abraham called the probe of the archdiocese one of her proudest accomplishments in 19 years in office.

“It didn’t matter to me that no one was charged,” Abraham said of the 2005 grand jury report. “It was more important for me to give these victims voices, to name names and dates and times. In my opinion, the report was worth it because it brought the truth out. And the truth had to come out.”

Getting the truth out, however, proved tougher than expected.

Abraham, an inveterate newspaper reader and clipper, said she first became aware of allegations that some Catholic priests sexually abused minors with news of the arrest in 1984 of the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe in Louisiana.

Gauthe was charged with, and pleaded guilty to, sexually abusing a number of young boys in his rural parishes, the first modern priest sex-abuse case to get national attention. Gauthe pleaded guilty in 1985 to charges involving 11 boys and served 10 years. The local diocese paid $12 million to settle victim lawsuits.

Then came 2002, when the priest sex-abuse scandal erupted in Boston.

“I knew it just wasn’t happening there,” Abraham said. She assembled a group of key aides and detectives – all Roman Catholics – to look at the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Detectives began working the parishes, and the grapevine soon produced its first victims: three brothers molested by the same priest.

Others followed.

In 2003, the District Attorney’s Office impaneled a grand jury to subpoena church documents and hear testimony.

It soon became clear that the statute of limitations – the period under state law during which charges must be filed – was a problem.

At that time, rape charges had to be filed within five years of the incident and child-endangerment charges within two years after the victims’ 18th birthday.

But most of the cases involved victims who came forward in their 30s or older – beyond prosecution.

Pennsylvania’s child-endangerment law also did not allow charges against someone who supervised another who molested children.

And the evidence coming out in the investigation was that the problem of pedophile priests was compounded by church officials who moved deviate priests around but did not remove them from ministry.

The evidence pointed to Lynn, then the church’s secretary for clergy, responsible for investigating allegations of priests sexually abusing minors.

He testified before the grand jury that he did his best to see that priests found to have sexually abused children were removed from ministry. But he could only recommend action, Lynn testified. Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua made that decision.

With cases too old to prosecute and no way to accuse Lynn as a supervisor, Abraham doubted charges were possible.

Not everyone agreed.

Assistant District Attorney William Spade was among those who questioned Lynn before the grand jury and believed Lynn and other officials could be charged in a conspiracy to cover up the deeds of pedophile priests.

“I would say it was certainly part of the reason I left,” said Spade, who resigned in 2004. “I really wasn’t happy that they thought we couldn’t win the argument over Lynn.”

The grand jury report was released in September 2005 and was as explosive, as expected. Archdiocesan officials attacked Abraham.

Cardinal Justin Rigali, who succeeded Bevilacqua as archbishop, said the 418-page report “had little of value” for Catholic families and “gives a very slanted view” of how the church responds to sex-abuse cases.

Rigali, in an Inquirer interview, acknowledged “mistakes made in the handling of some cases.”

“But what we cannot accept is the inference that there was any intentional, unlawful, or criminal behavior on the part of officials of the archdiocese,” Rigali said.

Prosecutors were not deterred. Abraham and her office began working with legislators to change laws.

In 2007, the legislature greatly expanded the statute of limitations involving sexually abused children, allowing prosecutors to bring charges up to the victims’ 30th birthday.

The legislature also amended the child-endangerment law to expose people in supervisory positions to prosecution if an employee or underling put a child at risk.

In 2008, Abraham impaneled a new grand jury that picked up the earlier panel’s work. Veterans of the probe, such as Assistant District Attorney Mariana Sorensen, the main author of the 2005 report, also remained.

On Feb. 10, 2011, Williams, then starting his second year in office, announced that the second grand jury had recommended conspiracy charges against Lynn and child-endangerment and sex-abuse charges against three priests and a Catholic school teacher.

Sources familiar with the investigation after Williams took over said he took a hands-off attitude toward the investigation.

Prosecutors continued seeking documents from the archdiocese and pushed for a videotaped two-day deposition of the ailing Bevilacqua. The cardinal died Jan. 31 at 88, one day after Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, who presided over the Lynn trial, ruled that Bevilacqua was competent to testify.

In an interview after the charges were announced, Williams described how he gave Rigali advance notice.

“I said, ‘Your Eminence, I hope you know I don’t take pleasure in doing things that in any way have a negative impact on the church. I have to do what I was elected to do, and I believe there is probable cause to hold the [charged priests] accountable to secular society.’ ”

On Friday, Williams told reporters “what happened here was unspeakable . . . They failed to recognize that the church is its people.”

1 Response to Years of work by Philadelphia D.A.’s Office led to priests’ trial

  1. Sylvia says:

    There’s good background information to the Philadelphia sex abuse trial here.

    And, yes, congratulations to all of those victims who testified.  It’s never an easy task, and all the more difficult I am sure with the eyes of the world watching. But, you did it!  Well done.

    My one hope now is the Brennan sex abuse charges will sent back to trial.

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