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Prosecutor: Archdiocese lawyers could be stifling witnesses

By John P. Martin, The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA — A prosecutor said Friday that new criminal lawyers hired by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia could be stifling priests and other church employees from cooperating in the looming child sex-abuse trial of current and former priests.

Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington cited a memo sent this month to archdiocesan employees reminding them to notify church lawyers before responding to requests from law enforcement or others about the case.

“The archdiocese is committed to cooperating with law enforcement authorities, the judicial system, and lawful requests from appropriate parties,” the memo said. “At the same time, we are also committed to keeping disruptions to a minimum and within appropriate boundaries.”

Blessington told Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina that the request posed a conflict because the lawyers, Robert Welsh and Catherine Recker, were being paid by the archdiocese while advising potential witnesses whose testimony could hurt the church and its leaders.

He said the lawyers want to sit in on all meetings between the employees and law enforcement. “You don’t have to stretch your imagination to see the chilling effect that will have,” Blessington said.

Welsh acknowledged that his firm represents four or five potential witnesses in the case, including two priests, but disputed the suggestion that he or the archdiocese wanted to muzzle them.

He said the memo was a standard reminder by an institutional employer, and necessary because some priests and archdiocesan employees had been besieged by the media, civil lawyers, and others with interests in the case.

In no way, Welsh said, was it a directive to stay silent.
“We have not instructed them not to talk to law enforcement — and in fact we hope and expect they will talk to law enforcement,” Welsh said.

The disclosure came during a status conference in the case of two priests, a defrocked priest and a former schoolteacher on charges that they sexually abused young boys in the 1990s.

A fifth defendant, Msgr. William J. Lynn, is accused of child endangerment and conspiracy for allegedly placing two of the priests in positions to abuse children despite previous accusations or suspicions of inappropriate behavior involving minors.

As secretary for clergy until 2004, Lynn’s job included investigating sex-abuse allegations against priests and recommending treatment or assignments for them.

All have pleaded not guilty and denied any wrongdoing.

A former federal prosecutor, Welsh was hired in an administrative housecleaning this fall by new Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. At the same time, the archdiocese ended its longtime affiliation with Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young, the Philadelphia law firm that advised it during three grand-jury investigations into clergy sex abuse.

Blessington noted that the archdiocese is paying for Lynn’s defense and has a vested interest in his acquittal. He asked the judge to order the archdiocese to rescind or clarify the memo to its employees about notifying the lawyers.

Welsh denied what he said was an implication “that somehow we’re aiding” Lynn or his legal team. “I’m not cooperating with them,” he said.

One of Lynn’s attorneys agreed. “I can attest that he’s not cooperating with us, Judge,” said lawyer Jeffrey Lindy. “Not at all.”

Sarmina asked prosecutors to formally outline their request in a motion and return Wednesday for a hearing.

She also said she would rule Monday on a request by one defendant, former Catholic schoolteacher Bernard Shero, for a separate trial.
Shero is accused of raping the same Northeast Philadelphia altar boy that two other defendants, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and Edward Avery, allegedly abused in the late 1990s.

Shero’s lawyer, Burton A. Rose, has argued that the former teacher should be tried separately because, unlike the others, he is not accused of participating in a broader conspiracy involving priests and church leaders.

A trial for all the defendants is scheduled to begin in late March.

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