Lead defendant takes witness stand at Philadelphia cleric abuse trial
Msgr. William J. Lynn began testifying in his own defense Wednesday, trying to counter prosecutors’ contention that he was the Archdiocese of Philadelphia official most responsible for letting priests stay in parishes despite evidence they might sexually abuse children. Within minutes of settling in the witness chair, Lynn and his lawyer zeroed in on a critical pillar of their defense. Lynn said that during his 12 years as secretary for clergy under Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, he never had the power to assign, transfer or restrict priests in the archdiocese.
Msgr. William J. Lynn began testifying in his own defense Wednesday, trying to counter prosecutors' contention that he was the Archdiocese of Philadelphia official most responsible for letting priests stay in parishes despite evidence they might sexually abuse children.
Within minutes of settling in the witness chair, Lynn and his lawyer zeroed in on a critical pillar of their defense. Lynn said that during his 12 years as secretary for clergy under Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, he never had the power to assign, transfer or restrict priests in the archdiocese.
"Who had the authority to do those things?" defense lawyer Thomas Bergstrom asked.
"Only the archbishop, the cardinal," Lynn replied.
The potentially risky decision to take the stand sets the stage for dramatic testimony from the lead defendant in the unprecedented Common Pleas Court case.
Prosecutors have spent two months calling a parade of witnesses designed to portray Lynn as a cleric who cared more about the welfare of the institution than child victims. They are expected to spend hours, if not days, challenging him in cross-examination.
Nearly every day at the trial, Lynn has sat stone-faced at the defense table, even as the lawyers and his codefendant, the Rev. James J. Brennan, chat and occasionally share laughs.
But he seemed at ease in the witness seat as his testimony began, swiveling gently between Bergstrom and the jury box, and answering some questions with a half-smile. His supporters filled four rows in the nearly packed courtroom.
Now 61, with silver hair and glasses, Lynn said he was told, not asked, about his appointment to the clergy office in 1992. At the time, he said, he didn't realize his duties would include investigating child sex abuse complaints.
"My understanding of the scope of the job was mainly to be pastoral to the priests — to take care of the priests and their needs," he said.
Lynn is accused of endangering children by recommending that Brennan and a former priest, Edward Avery, live or work in parishes despite signs they might abuse children.
Brennan has denied allegations that he tried to rape a 14-year-old boy in 1996. Avery pleaded guilty before the trial to charges that he sexually assaulted a 10-year-old altar boy in 1999.
Lynn told jurors about his 1992 efforts to restrict Avery after a man had reported that Avery had molested him in the 1970s. Avery denied any wrongdoing but said he "may have" done something inappropriate while he was drinking.
Lynn said he pressed Avery to undergo a psychological evaluation then recommended to the cardinal that Avery be hospitalized for inpatient treatment. Doctors diagnosed Avery with an alcohol problem and suggested a ministry that limited his access to children, but did not identify him with any sexual disorders.
Once Avery was released, it was Lynn's job to find him a new assignment. "I had to make a recommendation" to the cardinal, he said.
Ultimately, Avery was named chaplain at Nazareth Hospital and lived at nearby St. Jerome Parish in Northeast Philadelphia, where he later molested the boy.
Lynn's lawyers, Bergstrom and Jeffrey Lindy, have argued that he is being unfairly cast as a scapegoat for the failings and decisions of his bosses and have sought to portray their client as one of the few clerics who tried to keep predatory priests away from minors.
In his testimony, Lynn is likely to expand on his role and interaction with Bevilacqua, who died in January. But he could face scrutiny about dozens of decisions he made over the years.
In a ruling his lawyers repeatedly challenged, Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina allowed the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office to introduce evidence about 20 other Philadelphia priests alleged to have abused children, some decades ago. Those priests were never charged with a crime, but prosecutors contend that Lynn's handling or knowledge of those past allegations show that he understood the signs and depth of clergy sex abuse and demonstrated how church officials routinely buried the allegations by transferring problem priests.
Prosecutors could also try to challenge Lynn with his previous statements on the subject. He testified a dozen times before a grand jury exploring clergy sex-abuse a decade ago before ultimately invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. That panel savagely criticized his handling of clergy sex-abuse claims and prosecutors have read jurors hours of testimony before that grand jury at the current trial.
Lynn left the archdiocese administration in 2004. He then served as pastor of St. Joseph Church in Downingtown, but was forced to step aside after his arrest in February 2011. At that time, he was the highest-ranking church official to have been charged with enabling or covering up clergy sex abuse.
Contact John P. Martin at 215-854-4774 or at email@example.com. Follow him at JPMartinInky on Twitter.
We invite you to comment on this story by clicking here. Comments will be moderated.