One priest said Msgr. William J. Lynn treated victims of clergy sex abuse with compassion.
Another testified that Lynn pressed accused priests to enter treatment, and urged his bosses to order hospitalization for any who resisted.
A third noted that even regional vicars had more power than the secretary for clergy.
The priests took the stand Tuesday as the first witnesses called by the defense in the landmark clergy sex-abuse trial against Lynn, the former clergy secretary for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. His lawyers turned to each to bolster their contention that he was trying to remove sexually abusive priests but that he lacked the authority to do so.
Prosecutors, in turn, sought to use the testimony to suggest that Lynn - and sometimes the men around him - didn't do enough to investigate abuse claims and protect children.
When Lynn took the job in 1992, he was one of six priests named a "secretary" under Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua. The others oversaw archdiocese operations in areas ranging from education to Catholic life.
Msgr. Joseph Garvin, the secretary for Catholic human services at the time, told jurors that even regional vicars outranked them.
Lynn's recommendations in matters involving the clergy also typically needed the approval of three bosses above him, including Bevilacqua, according to Msgr. Michael T. McCulken, Lynn's assistant from 1994 to 1997.
"Was there any level in the official hierarchy that was below the secretaries - or would they be the bottom rung?" defense lawyer Jeffrey Lindy asked.
"They would be the bottom rung," McCulken said.
Now the pastor of St. Matthias Church in Bala Cynwyd, McCulken was a seminary classmate and longtime friend of Lynn's. He said Lynn approached him in 1994 about joining him in the clergy office but cautioned that the appointment had to be approved by his superiors, including Bevilacqua.
The office was "something of an HR office," McCulken said, responsible for arranging priests' assignments and tending to their needs. Lynn's oversight also involved St. Charles Borromeo seminary, the vocations office, retired priests, deacons, and continuing education for clergy.
McCulken said Lynn typically devoted nights and weekends to the job.
Investigating child-sex abuse allegations accounted for about 15 percent of Lynn's time, according to McCulken. Still, pressed by Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti, he acknowledged that such complaints were a priority.
"When a call came in, we stopped everything to take care of it," the witness said.
Nearly all of the accusers were in their late 20s or 30s, with claims of abuse that were often decades old, McCulken said. He said church lawyers advised Lynn and him that they did not need to refer the cases to civil authorities because such allegations fell outside the legal statute of limitations at the time.
Cipolletti jumped on the admission, trying to highlight prosecutors' contention that Lynn and other archdiocesan officials failed to investigate abuse claims because they were more concerned about the church's reputation.
"The bottom line is, you never called the police, not once, did you? You called your own lawyer, but you didn't call police," Cipolletti said.
"That's correct," McCulken said.
McCulken's predecessor in the office, Msgr. James D. Beisel, testified that he was unaware that the office investigated abuse complaints until he took the job, in the summer of 1993.
Beisel described his role largely as a note-taker who accompanied Lynn as he met with accusers and accused priests.
"He would conduct the interviews, I have to say, in a compassionate way," Beisel, now pastor at St. Robert Bellarmine Church in Warrington, Bucks County, said under questioning by defense lawyer Thomas Bergstrom.
Not long after he took the post, Beisel said, Lynn came to him with a project: culling through the hundreds of secret personnel files to compile a list of priests who had been suspected or confirmed of sexual misconduct with minors.
The list has become a smoking gun of sorts, missing for more than a decade and turned over to investigators only this year. Prosecutors have suggested that it shows Lynn allowed dangerous priests to remain in ministry and that he hid a copy in a safe in the archdiocese's center city offices.
Lynn's lawyers insist that he didn't know what happened to the list and that Bevilacqua and others had ordered it shredded.
Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington hammered at Beisel after the monsignor said he couldn't recall whether he had typed up the list or whether he had written "Father Lynn's copies" on a yellow note found attached to one version of the document retrieved from the safe.
"I don't recall it," Beisel said, becoming agitated. "The [note] looks like my handwriting, but I don't know that I put that on that list."
When Beisel conceded that only he or Lynn could have typed up the list from their handwritten notes, Blessington erupted: "Do you mean that a man of the cloth, a man of God, does not remember a list that says guilty of sexual misconduct with minors? Are you telling these people you don't remember typing this?"
The prosecutor added: "You're not trying to help your friend, are you?"
"I'm not trying to help my friend, no," Beisel replied. "I'm trying to help get to the truth."
Beisel insisted that his memory had faded since he worked with Lynn. He left the office after only a year, content not to know what became of their research.
"I was happy the project was over," he said.