Scandal has once again rocked the foundation of America’s largest religious denomination. Five members of the Philadelphia archdiocese are on trial, for what many are referring to as crimes against humanity. Four out of the five men have been accused of committing sexually abusive crimes against children of the perish. However, perhaps even more unsettling than that of clergy sexual abuse, is that of a half century long conspiracy by the Roman Catholic Church to cover-up such heinous acts. According to grand-jury reports, the fifth defendant on trial is just one of many church officials that have been in charge of sheltering abusive priests. In a bold move, the Philadelphia district attorney has acknowledged that the Catholic hierarchy’s gross neglect for child safety is not the fault of an inept medieval bureaucracy. Furthermore, the district attorney prosecuted the entire Roman Catholic Church as a criminal organization who deliberately put the lives of children in danger.
The men on trial include Father James Brennan, a 47-year-old priest accused of raping a 14-year-old boy. Edward Avery, Rev. Charles Engelhardt, and Bernard Shero, a former Catholic schoolteacher, are all accused of equally heinous acts. According to the charges, the three men raped and sodomized a 10-year-old alter boy, sometimes making him perform stripteases or getting him drunk on sacramental wine after Mass.
As unsettling as the previous accusations may sound, those brought against 60 year-old Monsignor William Lynn are considered to be the most significant. Lynn, a high-ranking official in Philadelphia’s archdiocese, was the trusted custodian of a trove of documents known in the church as the “Secret Archives files.” According to these documents, officials in the upper echelons of the church not only tolerated the widespread sexual abuse of children by priests but conspired to hide the crimes and silence the victims. Subsequently, Lynn has been accused of conspiracy, as the individual in charge of covering up heinous priest actions. However, the trial will have overwhelming ramifications for the church as a whole.
The current trial, being held in Philadelphia, is just one in a deluge of trials that has seen the scandal come to fruition. The Roman Catholic Church has been involved in sexual abuse cases since 1985, where a Louisiana priest was sentenced to 20 years in prison after admitting to sexually abusing 37 boys. However, 2002 witnessed civil suits in Boston shed light on what was to be a world wide scandal when Cardinal Bernard Law was accused of shielding rapist priests. As the years passed, countries around the world became overwhelmed by hundreds of alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse. As recent as 2009, the Irish government recently issued a scathing report that documents how Irish clergy, with tacit approval from the Vatican, covered up the sexual abuse of children.
In 1992, when Lynn was 41 years-old, he was promoted to secretary of the clergy, a position that effectively made him the human-resources director for the nearly 400 priests in the greater Philadelphia area. Those who broke the rules or stepped out of line in any way, would be disciplined by Lynn. Subsequently, particularly scandalous incidents, those that were deemed to heinous for typical personal files, were added to Secret Archives files. Files such as these can be fond at every Catholic diocese because they were mandated by canon law. One can only believe that these files exist to hide the imperfections of the church.
The files at the Philadelphia archdiocese contained an exhaustive compendium of scandals dating back more than 50 years. Files revealed priests with drinking problems, priests who had gotten women pregnant, stacks of pornography, and memos discussing “unnatural involvement”, otherwise known as clergy sexual abuse against children of the perish. Numerous cases pertaining to clergy sexual abuse were met with the same answer. Files revealed that sexually abusive priests were knowingly reassigned to a new parish as if nothing had ever happened. Actions such as these demonstrate a gross neglect for the safety of children at parishes across the globe.
In the midst of Secret Archives files, incidents documenting the heinous acts of Father Raymond Leneweaver ran rampant. The files reveal that Leneweaver was transfered to four different parishes, even after he had admitted to molesting at least seven boys. However, officials knowingly kept transferring him with the intentions of keeping his actions a secret. The Church’s only concern was that they might run out of places to transfer him to “where his scandalous action would not be known.” In fact, concern for the victims of clergy sexual abuse is hardly apparent in the Secret Archives files. Much more notable is the Church’s concern for their reputation.
As secretary of clergy, Lynn knew it was his responsibility to prevent the prestigious name of the Church from being tarnished by the actions of pedophile priests. In the 12 years that Lynn held the position of secretary of the clergy, he perfected the art of damage control to the point that some may consider his actions a conspiracy. With his fellow priests, Lynn was unfailingly sympathetic. Secret Archives files acknowledge one meeting in particular in which Lynn comforted a clergyman by suggesting that his 11-year-old victim had “seduced” him, after the distraught pastor had already admitted to abusing multiple alter boys.
Subsequently Lynn was equally as smooth and reassuring with the victims of clergy sexual abuse. Lynn would promise to take their complaints with upmost sincerity, while neglecting to punish their abusers. Kathy Jordan, who told Lynn in 2002 that she had been assaulted by a priest as a student at a Catholic high school, recalls how he assured her that the offender would no longer be allowed to work as a pastor. Years later, while reading the priest’s obituary, Jordan says it became clear to her that her abuser had, in fact, remained a priest, serving Mass in Maryland. “I came to realize that by having this friendly, confiding way, Lynn had neutralized me,” she says. “He handled me brilliantly.”
However, Lynn’s first year on the job witnessed a letter from a 29-year-old medical student trigger the events that led to his arrest 19 years later. The student revealed in his letter that he had been molested by Father Edward Avery, one of the defendants along with Lynn, in the current Philadelphia trial. The medical student, known only to the grand-jury as “Billy” was also allegedly raped, sodomized, and asked to preform sexual acts against his will by the three other defendants in the trial.
However, it was not until 2002, when the Boston abuse scandals brought to light the horrible acts against humanity that were happening at churches across the United States and even the world. In doing so, Lynne Abraham, the city’s district attorney at the time, became suspicious of 35 sexual abuse reports acknowledged by the Philadelphia archdiocese, but were never reported to her office. When Abraham asked the archdiocese for a relevant explanation, they refused to cooperate. Subsequently, Abraham requested a grand-jury investigation into what could be a growing concern. As a result, a team of prosecutors nicknamed “The God Squad” was sent to probe the archdiocese’s handling of sex-abuse claims.
The investigation revealed the Secret Archives files to the world. Prosecutors were stunned to find thousands of documents that detailed the hundreds of victims who had allegedly been abused by 169 priests. 2005 witnessed the grand jury release a 418-page report detailing their findings in the Secret Archives files. The report identified a total of 63 priests who, despite credible accusations of abuse, had been hidden under the direction of Cardinal Bevilacqua and his predecessor, Cardinal Krol. It also gave numerous examples of Lynn covering up crimes at the bidding of his boss. To date, this report remains the most comprehensive accusation aimed at the church’s institutional cover-up of sexual abuse.
Accordingly, “Billy’s” case became the foundation of the grand jury’s current investigation into the church conspiracy that reaches all of the way to the Vatican. When blame was placed on Monsignor Bill Lynn, for knowingly transferring accused pedophiles, the district attorney immediately sought prosecution.
According to court reports, Lynn and the four other co-defendants have pleaded not guilty. The trial is set to take place sometime this winter. In what Lynn must realize is an uphill battle, prosecutors may release some 10,000 potentially incriminating documents that suggest he knowingly covered up cases of clergy sexual abuse to protect the name of the church.
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