The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Friday, June 22, 2012

Accountability in Philadelphia

I was, some years ago, a criminal defense attorney working at the Legal Aid Society in its Criminal Appeals Bureau. I have never taken pleasure in a conviction, because it's all too easy for me to imagine the pain of the defendant, whether guilty or not.

So I do not exult in the conviction of Msgr. William Lynn, of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on one count of endangerment of children. The Monsignor is, no doubt, a man who sincerely dedicated his life to God and to the Church, and one who has, I am sure, done a great deal of good in his life. We are none of us reducible to our worst acts.

However, one of the functions of the criminal justice system is to set the baseline of what society will and what it will not accept as permissible behavior by its citizens, and Msgr. Lynn's conviction reflects secular society's re-affirmance that senior clergy have a duty to their fellow citizens as citizens, and not merely to the Church, in cases of abuse by their subordinates. The Roman Catholic Church has, since the Middle Ages, denied such a duty, and insisted upon the immunity from prosecution of the offending clergy, let alone his enablers. The verdict has brought home to the clergy that society at large deems acting upon that canon law concept as beyond the line of acceptable behavior. In my opinion, society is under an imperative duty to do so.

The Times notes that Msgr. Lynn is "the first senior official of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States to be convicted of covering up child sexual abuses by priests under his supervision." Msgr. Lynn was acquitted of one count of child endangerment, and of conspiracy, in addition to the count of child endangerment of which he stands convicted. The Philadelphia Inquirer explains the charge on which Lynn was convicted:
Lynn was accused of recommending that Brennan and another priest, Edward Avery, be allowed to live or work in parishes in the 1990s despite signs that they might abuse minors.

Defendant Brennan, 48, was accused of child endangerment and attempting to rape a 14-year-old boy in 1996. Avery pleaded guilty before the trial to sexually assaulting the 10-year-old altar boy in 1999 and is serving 2-1/2 to 5 years in state prison.


Both prosecutors and defense attorneys seized on what they called "a smoking gun" in the case: a list Lynn compiled in 1994 naming 37 archdiocesan priests, including some still working in parishes, who had been diagnosed as pedophiles, had admitted or were suspected of abusing children or teens. Some remained in active ministry for years after the list was drawn up.

One of the priests on the list was Avery, who had been classified as "guilty of sexual misconduct" in 1994 but was allowed to live and celebrate Mass at a Northeast Philadelphia parish where he later assaulted an altar boy.

Lynn had long acknowledged creating the list, but he and church lawyers said they didn't know where it was.

Prosecutors intimated that church leaders wanted the research because they were girding up for a wave of lawsuits by abuse victims.

Weeks before trial, a new team of church attorneys turned over a copy of the missing document, which they said had been locked in safe in church offices. They also gave prosecutors a handwritten memo from a now deceased church official that suggested Bevilacqua ordered the list shredded.
From the Times:
The prosecutors presented a flood of evidence, legal experts said, that the archdiocese had concealed abuse accusations and that Monsignor Lynn had not acted strongly to keep suspected molesters away from children, let alone to report them to law enforcement.

But the 13 days of jury deliberations and mixed verdict showed the difficulty of placing criminal blame on one church official when there was evidence that others, starting with the cardinal at the time, had worked to prevent bad publicity and lawsuits. The jurors also wrestled with the definition of conspiracy, at one point asking the judge to define “agree,” and with the question of criminal intent on the part of Monsignor Lynn, who presented himself as an affable man who tried his best.
“The guilty verdict sends a strong and clear message that shielding and enabling predator priests is a heinous crime that threatens families, communities and children, and must be punished as such,” said Barbara Dorris, of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Perhaps; statute of limitations questions have bedeviled many cases, and will continue to do so.

But this conviction signals that the players in the criminal justice system may no longer be willing to be quiescent in the face of obfuscation, and that enabling of criminal activity will meet the same response whether the perpetrator wears a tie or a clerical collar. Let us hope so, and let us hope that the harm done to victims of abuse can find some measure of healing in the recognition of the wrongs done to them.

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