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Priests' trial opens with lurid tales

Stories of stalking and improper touching set an uncomfortable tone in the courtroom.

Msgr. William J. Lynn has been accused of covering up abuse. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)
Msgr. William J. Lynn has been accused of covering up abuse. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)Read more

Stalking. Groping. Gay bondage porn.

A sexually graphic love letter to a grade-school boy.

The topics discussed in a third-floor Philadelphia courtroom last week might unnerve most observers.

That they emerged in testimony about priests - and at times, from priests - only amplified the uneasiness. After all, a prosecutor told jurors at the start of this landmark clergy sex-abuse trial in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, priests are viewed as God's agents on Earth.

Though much of the evidence introduced against Msgr. William J. Lynn had been outlined in two grand jury reports, the first week of his trial added a dimension to a scandal that has roiled Catholics for a decade.

Aired for the first time were secret church records, typed and hand-written, chronicling what Lynn and the local church hierarchy allegedly knew and did about priests suspected of abuse. There on the stand were victims describing as creepy predators men they had been taught to revere.

"I felt helpless and trapped," one witness told jurors, explaining why at age 13 she kept returning to her weekend rectory job at St. John of the Cross in Roslyn, Montgomery County, after the Rev. Albert Kostelnick repeatedly fondled her. "My parents expected me to work."

A second victim said the Rev. Francis Trauger caught him looking at gay pornography in a Center City bookstore in 1991. The boy, then 15, did not know Trauger and left, shaken, without giving the priest his name.

But Trauger traced him to St. John Neumann High School, had him removed from class, locked him in a conference room, then touched his leg while talking about homosexuality, he said.

"I told you I'd find you," Trauger, who has since been defrocked, allegedly said before a concerned faculty member knocked on the door and disrupted the encounter.

Prosecutors also used testimony from five priests and two detectives, and about 200 documents, to start building their case that Lynn, his superiors, and their predecessors ignored or failed to act responsibly on abuse claims.

"There was a battle . . . between right and wrong that was happening within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia," Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Coelho said in her opening statement, placing Lynn on the wrong side. "He kept the parishioners in the dark and he kept the faithful in the dark."

Charged with child endangerment and conspiracy, Lynn, former archdiocesan secretary for clergy, is the first church official nationwide to be tried for allegedly covering up clergy sex-abuse.

His codefendant the Rev. James J. Brennan is accused of trying to rape a 14-year-old boy in 1996, although prosecutors barely uttered his name last week. Another defendant, defrocked priest Edward Avery, pleaded guilty before trial to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy.

Lynn's lawyers argued that he, more than other church officials, tried to confront the issue of clergy sex abuse.

As the archdiocesan officer responsible for recommending priests' assignments and investigating misconduct between 1992 and 2004, he routinely faced clerics who denied the accusations, his attorneys said, and he often lacked proof or authority to act. In the end, they said, he documented his reviews and advised Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua to isolate problem priests from children.

"It was an ugly job, and it was not an easy job, but he did it," one of Lynn's lawyers, Thomas Bergstrom, told jurors.

Prosecutors focused on what they say Lynn and the archdiocese did not do: swiftly remove priests credibly suspected of abuse.

Kostelnick, who lived at the Roslyn rectory for a quarter-century, was an example.

The witness against him, now in her 50s, said she sent Lynn a complaint letter in 2001. Kostelnick molested her sisters, too, she wrote.

She was Kostelnick's sixth accuser, according to the 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report. But it was not until complaints about him reached double digits that Kostelnick was removed. He died in 2009 at age 81.

Prosecutors also spent hours showing jurors how former priest Raymond Leneweaver was shuffled among parishes after abusing boys in the 1960s and '70s. Some offenses occurred before Lynn was ordained, and Leneweaver resigned in 1980.

Still, Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina told jurors prosecutors could introduce such evidence to help them "understand the complete story" and decide whether Lynn's actions followed a broader, long-standing system of protecting the church instead of victims.

The Rev. Michael Murtha was left in ministry for 12 years after a priest at St. Anselm Church in Northeast Philadelphia found gay sadomasochistic pornography in his room in 1995. The Rev. Joseph Okonski told jurors he also found a letter Murtha had drafted to a parish boy.

In it, Murtha fantasized about having sex with the boy and proposed a rendezvous. He never sent the letter or touched the boy.

Lynn recommended Murtha be treated at St. John Vianney, the archdiocese-owned hospital, then helped place him in four parishes over the next decade.

Pastors from two of those churches, Sacred Heart in Havertown and St. Michael the Archangel in Levittown, said no one told them about Murtha's past. At Sacred Heart, the Rev. Henry McKee testified, he let Murtha train altar boys.

Murtha was removed in 2007, after officials found 1,000 photos of nude males on his computer - including six that appeared to be boys.

All of the priests who testified said they knew Lynn, and most seemed uncomfortable discussing the sex habits and problems of fellow priests.

The Rev. Michael Hennelly was one of three priests who complained in 1993 to church officials that the Rev. David Sicoli, pastor of Our Lady of Hope in North Philadelphia, had an unnatural relationship with a local teenager. Sicoli once told the boy he made him "feel like a cheap whore," the grand jury report said.

Officials were slow to act, so Hennelly requested a transfer. "I had to make a personal decision," he told jurors. "For my well-being, I couldn't live and work there."

Sicoli has been defrocked.

Two of the priests who testified repeated a pillar of the defense: that the archbishop, not Lynn, decided their fates.

Lynn's lawyer, Jeffrey Lindy, called Bevilacqua "a puppet master" and noted that ordained priests pledge to follow their archbishop.

"Is it also called a vow of obedience?" Lindy asked Detective Joseph Walsh of the District Attorney's Office.

Walsh would not bite.

"I believe it's just a promise," Walsh said.

The trial resumes Monday.

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