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Philadelphia Church Official, Priests Fight Abuse Case

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Priest Sex Abuse Graphic - AP

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A court hearing in Philadelphia next month could determine if criminal charges will stick over the novel indictment of a Roman Catholic church official charged with conspiracy and child-endangerment for his handling of priest transfers.

Monsignor William Lynn, 60, is the only U.S. church official ever charged in the sex-abuse scandal for allegedly transferring predator priests to unsuspecting parishes, endangering yet more children.

Four others—two priests, an ex-priest and a former teacher—are charged in the same case with raping boys. Like Lynn, they are aggressively fighting the charges, rejecting a recent plea offer that would have sent them to prison for 7 ½ to 15 years.

Defense lawyers will try to have many of the charges dismissed at a hearing July 29 in Common Pleas Court.

Lynn’s lawyers will argue that he shouldn’t be charged with child endangerment if he never had children in his care. That’s why a 2005 Philadelphia grand jury didn’t bring similar charges against church officials, they wrote in recent court papers.

”The calculus remains the same today,” lawyers Thomas Bergstrom and Jeffrey Lindy wrote. “The statute itself makes clear there must be some identity between the parent, guardian or supervisor and the child—they must know each other.”

As secretary of clergy from 1992 to 2004, Lynn carried out priest transfers, but his lawyers deny that he authorized them. That job fell to the top man, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua until 2003 or Cardinal Justin Rigali after, they said.

The archdiocese is paying for Lynn’s defense, as it has since the earlier grand jury began looking into priest-abuse allegations in 2003. Lynn was featured prominently in the resulting 2005 report.

”Their interests may not align with yours,” now-retired Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes warned Lynn in March, suggesting he may want independent counsel. “It may be in your best interest to attack certain people.”

”I do understand that,” Lynn said.

The cardinals were not charged in either grand jury investigation. The 2005 report found that 63 archdiocesan priests had been credibly abused, but none recently enough to result in charges under existing Pennsylvania law.

Since then, Pennsylvania has extended the time limits for child sexual-abuse victims to come forward. That enabled the later grand jury to file the pending charges.

Lynn also wants his case severed from the men accused of rape. Three of them—Edward Avery, Bernard Shero and the Rev. Charles Engelhardt—are charged with raping the same schoolboy in the 1990s.

Prosecutors later tacked on conspiracy charges to the February indictment. The priests are demanding an evidence hearing on the conspiracy accusations.

”Lynn, the cardinal, their lawyers and other administrators of the archdiocese may have jointly pursued inappropriate policies for the benefit of that entity,” Avery’s lawyer, Michael Wallace, wrote in a recent pretrial motion. “But there is no evidence that there was an agreement between Lynn and Avery that led to the assault.”

He likewise took aim at several other potential conspiracy theories.

Shero, as a lay teacher, was not supervised by Lynn, he noted. And he said there is no evidence that Avery and the Rev. James Brennan, 48, charged with assaulting a different victim, knew each other.

”There is one factual nexus between Avery, Engelhardt and Shero, they allegedly had a common victim,” Wallace argued. “That fact is not sufficient to infer a conspiratorial agreement between the three men.”

He therefore wants Avery’s case severed from the others.

Engelhardt, 64, and Avery, 68, are accused of raping the boy in the church sacristy after Mass. Shero, 48, his sixth-grade teacher the next year, raped him during a ride home from school, prosecutors said.

The victim, later plagued by depression and substance abuse, reported the attacks years later.

Avery had been on the church’s radar since at least 1992, when a medical student told the archdiocese that the priest and sometime disc jockey had abused him in the 1970s and 1980s.

While American dioceses have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to abuse victims to settle civil lawsuits in recent years, criminal charges in clergy sex abuse cases have been rare.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, a practicing Catholic who serves on archdiocesan board, was nonetheless blunt about the church’s failings when he announced the charges: He branded Lynn a liar.

”(He) lied to parishioners and went out of his way to reassign priests without telling pastors or principals that they were pedophiles,” Williams said.

Bergstrom fired back: “We certainly don’t concede for a moment that he knew he was putting children at risk.”

Lynn most recently served as pastor of a suburban parish in Downingtown. The archdiocese placed him on administrative leave after his arrest.

A gag order now prevents either side from commenting outside the courtroom.

(© Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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