A Philadelphia grand jury on Thursday brought felony charges against a former high-ranking official of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for "purposefully" shielding sexually abusive priests and endangering children in the late 1990s, and said it was uncertain whether retired archbishop Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua was culpable as well.
"We cannot conclude that a successful prosecution can be brought against the Cardinal - at least for the moment," the panel wrote in its report.
It was the second time in less than six years that a grand jury excoriated the archdiocese for its mishandling of sex-abuse cases, again bringing home the scandal that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church worldwide for more than a decade.
The new grand jury report flatly stated that even the current leadership under Cardinal Justin Rigali has not lived up to its promise to protect children by weeding out predatory clergy, keeping as many as 41 priests "in ministry despite solid, credible allegations of abuse."
The panel issued two felony charges against Msgr. William Lynn, who handled all priest personnel issues, including abuse accusations, as Bevilacqua's secretary of the Office for Clergy from 1992 to 2004. Since then, he has been pastor of St. Joseph Church in Downingtown.
Lynn, 60, is not accused of physically abusing minors but of turning a blind eye to complaints about three priests and a parochial-school teacher who then raped two altar boys in 1996 and 1998 at St. Jerome's Church in Northeast Philadelphia. The four men also were indicted on felony charges Thursday and, like Lynn, arrested.
The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office said Lynn is believed to be the first member of a Catholic diocesan hierarchy in the United States charged criminally for his alleged role in concealing or enabling clergy abuse of children. He faces 14 years in prison if convicted on both third-degree felony charges.
"Let this be a clarion call," said District Attorney Seth Williams, himself a Catholic, at a news conference Thursday. "I love my church, but I detest the criminal behavior of priests who abuse, or allow the abuse, of children."
Issued under then-District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham, the 2005 grand jury report dealt harshly with both Lynn and Bevilacqua, accusing them of an "immoral cover-up" in abuse cases generally. However, neither was charged with any crimes.
The current indictment against Lynn hinges on fresh charges by the two rape victims, identified only as "Billy" and "Mark," who came forward only in 2009.
The new report noted that Bevilacqua, now 87, "was kept closely advised of Monsignor Lynn's activities, and personally authorized many of them." However, the jury had found no "good evidence" that the cardinal had direct knowledge of the incidents at St. Jerome's.
Bishop Daniel Thomas, an auxiliary bishop who oversees the archdiocese's communications office, said Thursday that church officials had not had an opportunity to review the 124-page report and could not immediately respond to any of it.
Later in the day, however, Rigali issued a letter to all 267 parishes in the five-county archdiocese denying the grand jury's allegation that dozens of priests with credible abuse allegations against them were still in active ministry.
"I assure all the faithful that there are no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them," the cardinal's letter stated.
Jeff Lindy, an attorney for Lynn, said his client was a victim of excessive zeal on the part of the District Attorney's Office and was innocent of all charges. Lynn will plead not guilty, and the archdiocese has not asked him to step down, he said.
According to the grand jury report, Lynn was aware of credible abuse allegations against the three priests, but did not bar them from contact with minors, thus enabling four rapes of the two boys.
The accused include the Rev. Charles F. Engelhardt, 64, an Oblate priest most recently a parochial vicar at the Church of the Resurrection of Our Lord in the city's Rhawnhurst section. He is charged with orally sodomizing a 10-year-old altar boy in 1998 in St. Jerome's sacristy.
Despite the boy's resistance, Engelhardt allegedly told the Rev. Edward Avery, a diocesan priest then assigned to St. Jerome's, about the assault. Weeks later, Avery, now 68 and defrocked, assaulted the boy in the same way, according to the report.
Bernard G. Shero, the boy's sixth-grade teacher at St. Jerome's parish school, allegedly learned from one or both of the priests about the assaults and one day offered the boy a ride home. Instead, the grand jury said, Shero, now 48, orally and anally raped him in his car and then left him to walk home.
The Rev. James Brennan, 47, an archdiocesan priest, is also accused of having anally raped a 14-year-old boy during the summer of 1996, while on leave from Cardinal O'Hara High School. In 1997, Brennan was reassigned to active ministry at St. Jerome's.
At Thursday's news conference, District Attorney Williams said Lynn had had "all the information he needed" to bar the three priests from ministry, but instead "went out his way to put known abusers into contact with adolescents."
St. Jerome's is a small, close-knit parish in the Winchester Park section of the Northeast, with a large percentage of city police, firefighters, and their families.
Michael Lauder, a longtime parishioner, said many people at the school were shocked and upset when they heard of the indictments Thursday. He said he was relieved as soon as he learned that the charges were not related to recent crimes.
"It's not a surprise," said Lauder, who joined the parish 28 years ago. "It's sad, but it's the right thing. . . . These gentlemen are going to have to answer for their actions."
While the new grand jury report commends the archdiocese for improving its services to victims and how it reports an abuse allegation to civil authorities, it sharply criticized some of those same practices.
Since 2005, the archdiocese has repeatedly deceived victims who report abuse by leading them to believe their information will be kept confidential - and instead sharing it with its law firm, according to the report.
It also said the archdiocese has kept in ministry priests strongly suspected or credibly accused of abusing minors.
Despite its claims, the archdiocese's policy "is clearly not zero tolerance," Williams said Thursday.
"It is time for the church to remove all credibly accused priests from ministry," he said, "and to put protection of children ahead of protection from scandal."
Read the grand jury report at www.philly.com/