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Lawyers for Philadelphia cleric in sex-abuse scandal claim unfair smears by prosecutors

By John P. Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — The monsignor awaiting trial for allegedly protecting pedophile priests has been wrongly smeared by prosecutors and in fact exercised “good judgment” when recommending what to do about clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, his lawyers say.

As proof, the lawyers point to the same cases that prosecutors say show Msgr. William J. Lynn was a key player in shuffling priests or enabling sexual assaults.

In all but one instance, they say, the priests accused of abuse whose cases Lynn reviewed were never again accused of hurting a child.

“Surely some mistakes have occurred,” attorneys Thomas Bergstrom and Jeffrey Lindy wrote. “(But) the fact that no new children or young adults were harmed … is a clear testament to his diligent and competent efforts to treat problematic priests and isolate them from interacting with children.”

The argument is part of the attorneys’ most expansive attempt yet to refute or derail the case against Lynn before his March trial. In a court filing, they claim that prosecutors have egregiously misapplied the law, wildly misstated facts and unfairly portrayed their client.

The document sets the stage next month for a hearing and ruling that both prosecutors and defense lawyers have acknowledged could shape the outcome of the case.

Lynn, 60, is charged with of conspiracy and endangerment stemming from his role as the secretary for clergy under Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua. At the time of his arrest in February, he was the highest-ranking church administrator nationwide to be charged with covering up child sex abuse by priests.

Prosecutors say Lynn endangered children when he recommended the Rev. Edward V. Avery and the Rev. James J. Brennan for parish assignments in the 1990s that gave them access to children, despite previous complaints or signs of abusive behavior.

Both men are accused of molesting boys in those posts. Facing trial with them on similar charges are the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and Bernard Shero, a former teacher at a Catholic elementary school in Philadelphia.

Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina has barred the lawyers and defendants from publicly discussing the case. So the case has largely been left to unfold in brief pretrial hearings and court filings.

Repeating an assertion they have made since Lynn was charged, his lawyers accused prosecutors of overstating Lynn’s authority. Never, they said, did he have the power to place or assign priests.

“Only the archbishop could do so, and Monsignor Lynn gave a vow to obey the directives of the archbishop on his ordination day,” the lawyers wrote. states. “Sometimes Cardinal Bevilacqua agreed with Monsignor Lynn’s suggestions. At other times, he did not, sending Monsignor Lynn’s memos back to him with handwritten comments suggesting alternative courses of action.”

(Bevilacqua has not been charged in the case. After questioning the 88-year-old cardinal in private deposition last month, Lynn’s lawyers asked the judge to ban his testimony from the trial because they say his memory is too flawed for them to properly cross-examine him.)

Even if one were to accept that Lynn had unilateral power, his lawyers say he didn’t use it in many of the 27 cases cited by Sorensen as examples of his “prior bad acts.” Many, they contend, involved complaints against priests that were filed before Lynn became the secretary for clergy or resolved after he left.

Others were allegations — like possession of child pornography — that they assert can’t fairly be used to show how he or the archdiocese handled child-abuse claims. They predicted that introducing evidence about 27 other priests — “none of them who had anything to do with” the priests in the criminal case — was not only unfair but would also bog down a trial already predicted to last four months.

Lynn’s lawyers say Avery’s case is the only one in which Lynn recommended a parish placement for a priest who had been previously accused of abuse. In the early 1990s, a former altar boy accused Avery, then a parish pastor in Mount Airy, of molesting him in the 1970s.

After six months of inpatient treatment, Avery was assigned as a chaplain at Nazareth Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia and allowed to live and celebrate Mass at St. Jerome’s church. It was there, prosecutors say, that he, Engelhardt and Shero molested the same altar boy.

Prosecutors say Lynn’s conduct effectively enabled the assaults.

But Bergstrom and Lindy also questioned the legal basis for the charges. They say Lynn can’t be tried for child endangerment because he never had direct supervision over a child during his tenure as secretary for clergy.

The lawyers say Sorensen and other prosecutors have openly acknowledged this loophole, and used it to press for 2007 changes to the statute. Those changes broadened the law to include persons “that employ or supervise” a parent, guardian or other person with direct supervision over a minor.

©2011 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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