A high ranking Catholic Church official stands accused of conspiring to hide the truth about pedophile priests from unknowing parishioners in an ongoing effort to protect the Church from scandal, according to prosecuting attorneys yesterday.
Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Coelho tore into defendant William J. Lynn during her opening arguments of the first ever Catholic Church official in the United States accused of conspiring to maintain a veil of secrecy over the actions of several priests who allegedly sexually assaulted children in their parishes. Coelho said the case is about a battle between right and wrong, and it only took common sense to do what was right. Unfortunately, Coelho alleged, the Philadelphia Archdiocese allowed the misdeeds of certain priests to go unpunished and allowed it to go on for decades.
“Lynn was the secretary of the clergy,” Coelho said. “He was charged with investigating crimes committed against children by priests. Under canon law no priest is allowed to have sexual relations with a minor. Lynn was supposed to protect the Church and children and the privacy of the priests. But this mandate is mutually exclusive. You can’t protect the Church from scandal without keeping the truth about these priests in the dark. You can’t protect these priests by not endangering the welfare of children. Lynn kept it in the dark. Lip service was paid to the children who were victims, and the Church was protected from scandal at all costs.”
Monsignor William J. Lynn is accused of two counts of felony endangerment, conspiracy and endangering the welfare of a minor. He pleaded not guilty. The codefendant in the landmark case, James Brennan, is charged with two counts of attempted rape, conspiracy and endangering the welfare of a minor. He also entered a plea of not guilty. A third defendant in the case, defrocked priest Edward Avery, pleaded guilty last week to one count of sexually assaulting a minor and one count of conspiring to endanger the welfare of a minor. In a statement before the court, Avery also said that Lynn knew about his behavior, and still allowed him to remain a priest.
“You don’t endanger a child,” Coelho told the jurors. “You don’t put them in harm’s way, you don’t put them at risk, and you don’t put a person who would endanger children in a position where they would be able to endanger children. It’s just basic common sense, you just don’t do that. Make no mistake, this was a conspiracy — and in the engagement of a conspiracy it is all for one and one for all.”
Coelho told the jurors that the Philadelphia Archdiocese protected priests who had been accused of sexually assaulting children for at least 70 years – keeping the information in what she called a “secret archive” of files. These files, dating back to 1948, allegedly detailed a standing policy by the local Catholic Church to play a shell game with pedophile priests. Those suspected priests were never investigated, the testimony of victims was always doubted, and the priests were moved about from one parish to another.
Coelho said in court that numerous red flags were ignored — even accusations from fellow priests who had reason to believe sexual assaults were committed by colleagues. The accusing priests were often disciplined, she said, not the accused offenders.
One of the victims, she said, alleged that he was passed around between two priests who orally sodomized him at the St. Jerome School. The victim, who was only known as “Billy” in the Grand Jury’s investigation, was in the fifth grade when he encountered Bernard Shero, who allegedly forced him to engage in inappropriate sexual acts.
Lynn could get up to 28 years in prison if convicted.