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Pa. high court is asked to review charges against monsignor

Attorneys for the Philadelphia monsignor accused of enabling priests to molest altar boys asked Thursday that the state's highest court review the charges, an unusual legal maneuver that could scuttle or delay the trial.

Monsignor William Lynn
Monsignor William LynnRead more

Attorneys for the Philadelphia monsignor accused of enabling priests to molest altar boys asked Thursday that the state's highest court review the charges, an unusual legal maneuver that could scuttle or delay the trial.

In their motion, the attorneys for Msgr. William J. Lynn urged the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to step in before Lynn and the other priests begin their trial in March.

The lawyers contend that prosecutors misapplied the law when they charged Lynn with endangering children. They also say the outcome of his case will be far-reaching, because Lynn, 61, was the first church official nationwide to be charged with covering up clergy sex abuse.

"The continuation of this criminal prosecution will have grave and immediate public implications," wrote attorneys Thomas Bergstrom, Jeffrey Lindy, and Alan Tauber. "It is impossible to predict how many practicing Catholics and members of the Catholic clergy will be affected by this trial." The lawyers are being paid by the archdiocese.

Citing a gag order, Tasha Jamerson, spokeswoman for Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, said the office had no comment on the motion.

The filing marked the latest, and maybe loudest, in a series of recent legal volleys as prosecutors and defense lawyers head to trial.

Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina has ordered jury selection to begin Feb. 21. Opening arguments follow March 26, with a trial projected to last four months.

Lawyers call Lynn's filing a King's Bench motion, a reference to the high court in English common law. Such a request to the high court before a case is tried by a judge or jury is unusual, said Edward Ohlbaum, a veteran professor of trial advocacy at Temple Law School.

Winning one is rarer.

"What you're basically asking the court to do is to say, 'Stop the music. We're going to resolve it here,' " Ohlbaum said. "Invariably, that's not what Supreme Courts do."

Ohlbaum said the high court was likely to act quickly on the request.

As secretary for clergy under Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua from 1992 to 2004, Lynn was the archdiocesan official responsible for investigating sex-abuse complaints and recommending action or assignments for accused priests.

In 2005, a Philadelphia grand jury vilified the cardinal and monsignor for their handling of past molestation allegations, but said weak laws prevented the jury from recommending criminal charges. The panel did, however, urge state lawmakers to amend child-endangerment statutes to include people like Lynn who may have no direct contact with children but supervise others who do.

That amendment took effect in 2007, and Lynn's attorneys say a new grand jury used it when it recommended charges last February against him.

Lynn is accused of endangering children when he helped place two archdiocesan priests in parish assignments in the 1990s, despite knowing or suspecting the priests had sexually abused boys.

Prosecutors say the Rev. James J. Brennan and now Edward Avery, a former priest, molested boys at those parishes. (A third codefendant, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, is also accused of raping an altar boy, but he belongs to a religious order and was not under Lynn's supervision.)

In their filing, Lynn's attorneys argue that the District Attorney's Office was among the most vocal advocates of changing the endangerment law and that it openly acknowledged that the law before 2007 was flawed. His attorneys argue that was the only law in place when Lynn was Secretary for Clergy, and thus the only one under which he can be charged.

"The commonwealth cannot now use the old version - that version which the commonwealth found so wanting in the Grand Jury I report - to prosecute Msgr. Lynn," they wrote.

The lawyers made the same argument in a motion before the trial judge, but Sarmina has not ruled on it. The judge also has yet to resolve a raft of other motions that could drastically shape or alter the trial.

The assistant district attorneys have asked her to bar Lynn from claiming he was only following orders from church lawyers, or to let them see all the correspondence between archdiocesan officials and their attorneys. At the same time, prosecutors contend that a new team of church attorneys has been muscling potential witnesses in the archdiocese and has been slow to turn over evidence of potentially criminal misconduct by priests.

Lynn's defenders have asked the judge to order prosecutors to stop claiming that his actions were part of a broader conspiracy by church leaders to protect abusive priests. They also say prosecutors should not be allowed to show jurors evidence of Lynn's handling of dozens of sex-abuse complaints, but just the ones against Brennan and Avery.

Those issues are to be the subject of a daylong hearing Jan. 23 before Sarmina.

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