PHILADELPHIA — Msgr. William J. Lynn, a former archbishop’s aide, was found guilty Friday of one count of endangering children, becoming 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.
The 12-member jury acquitted Monsignor Lynn, of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, on a conspiracy charge and a second count of endangerment after a three-month trial that prosecutors and victims rights groups called a milestone in the sexual abuse scandals that have shaken the Catholic church.
Despite the mixed outcome, the guilty verdict was widely seen as a victory for the district attorney’s office, which has been investigating the archdiocese aggressively since 2002, and it was hailed by victim advocates who have argued for years that senior church officials should be held accountable for concealing evidence and transferring predatory priests to unwary parishes.
Monsignor Lynn sat impassively as the jury read the verdicts, but some relatives behind him were in tears. Judge M. Teresa Sarmina of the Common Pleas Court revoked his bail and the monsignor stood up, removed his black clerical jacket and was led from the courtroom by sheriff’s deputies. His conviction could result in a prison sentence of three-and-a-half to seven years.
The trial sent a sobering message to church officials and others overseeing children around the country, a message punctuated by the conviction of Monsignor Lynn, who was an aide to the late Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua.
“I think that bishops and chancery officials understand that they will no longer get a pass on these types of crimes,” said Nicholas P. Cafardi, a professor of law at Duquesne University, a canon lawyer and frequent church adviser.
“Priests who sexually abuse youngsters and the chancery officials who enabled it,” he said, “can expect criminal prosecution.”
The trial cast a harsh light on the top leadership of the archdiocese, especially Cardinal Bevilacqua, the archbishop of Philadelphia from 1988 to 2003, who died in January. Monsignor Lynn’s own lawyer told the jury that “in this trial, you have seen the dark side of the church.”
The revelations of sexual abuse and seeming official indifference have tormented an archdiocese that was long known for imperious leaders and an insular camaraderie among its priests – “the priestly equivalent of the blue wall of silence,” said Rocco Palmo, the Philadelphia-based writer of Whispers in the Loggia, a blog on Catholic affairs. It has also been costly: the financially ailing archdiocese said this week that legal fees and internal investigations spurred by the abuse cases had cost $11.6 million since early 2011.
Cardinal Bevilacqua and his aides, the prosecutors argued, sought to avoid scandal and costly lawsuits at almost any price, putting the reputation of the archdiocese ahead of protecting vulnerable children.
Before the verdict, Monsignor Lynn’s lawyers promised to appeal any conviction, arguing that the law on child endangerment at the time did not apply to supervisors and that the judge had allowed prejudicial evidence, among other issues.
Monsignor Lynn, 61, served as secretary for clergy for the 1.5 million-member Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004, in charge of recommending priest assignments and investigating abuse complaints. Prosecutors said he played down credible accusations and reassigned known predators to unwary parishes.
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 tortuous 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.
Victims advocates said they hoped that Monsignor Lynn’s conviction would embolden prosecutors in other states to investigate senior church officials, and they say it could lead to more victim lawsuits in Philadelphia and around the country.
“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.
But such proceedings may often be limited, legal experts said, by statutes of limitations. The jury said it was deadlocked on two counts against a second priest who was tried with Monsignor Lynn, and Judge Sarmina declared a mistrial on those charges. The priest, Rev. James J. Brennan, 49, who was charged with attempted rape and endangerment, had admitted to showing his accuser pornography and climbing into bed with him naked. But the defense challenged the credibility of the accuser, a man with a criminal record who said Father Brennan had tried to rape him in 1996, when he was 14.
The prosecutors also faced a hurdle linked to the statute of limitations. To convict him, the judge ruled, the jury had to find that Father Brennan had not only abused that boy but continued to put children at risk over his subsequent years of active ministry. The prosecutors were unable to find later victims.
Monsignor Lynn’s defense hinged on his claim that he had tried to curb abuses, but that only the cardinal had the authority to remove priests. The prosecutors said that Monsignor Lynn was culpable whether or not he was atop the chain of command.
One crucial piece of evidence was a list drawn up in 1994 by Monsignor Lynn of some three dozen active priests who had been credibly accused of sex abuses. After seeing the list, testimony showed, Cardinal Bevilacqua ordered that all copies be shredded.
This February, in a surprise turn the month before the trial began, a lawyer for the archdiocese turned over to the court a frayed folder including a copy of the list, saying it had been found in a locked safe.
The prosecutors called it a smoking gun. One of those named in 1994 as “guilty of sexual misconduct with minors” was the former Rev. Edward V. Avery, whose continued tenure in ministry was at the heart of Monsignor Lynn’s trial and sole conviction. Mr. Avery, now 69, spent six months in a church psychiatric center in 1993 after an abuse incident. Doctors said he should have close follow-up care and be kept away from children. But Monsignor Lynn allowed him to live in a parish rectory where he had contact with children.
In 1999, Mr. Avery undressed with a 10-year-old altar boy, told him that God loved him and had him engage in oral intercourse.
Mr. Avery was not removed from ministry until 2003, and he was removed from the priesthood in 2006. He was to have been tried with Monsignor Lynn and Father Brennan, but just before the trial began he pleaded guilty to the assault and was sentenced to two-and-a-half to five years in prison.
In 2002, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a national “zero-tolerance” policy, pledging to remove from ministry any priest facing credible accusations.
But serious lapses have occurred, including in Philadelphia, where a grand jury early last year feb 2011 accused the archdiocese of failing to report or remove predatory priests and asserted that as many as 37 priests with past accusations remained active in ministry. Five months later, Cardinal Justin Francis Rigali, who had succeeded Cardinal Bevilacqua, announced his retirement.
Last summer Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, then the head of the Denver Archdiocese, took over in Philadelphia, and in May he announced the removal of five priests named in the grand jury report. Three others were cleared of charges and investigations continue into other cases.
The bishop of the Kansas City Diocese, Robert W. Finn, is awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges of violating the state’s mandatory reporting requirement by allegedly waiting six months to tell the police that a priest had taken lewd photographs of girls.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 22, 2012
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the jury had deadlocked on two counts against Msgr. William J. Lynn; the jury acquitted Monsignor Lynn of conspiracy and a second count of endangerment.