Monday, March 26, 2012

In Philadelphia, The Hour of Trial

Ten years since the eruption of Boston sparked the gravest scandal American Catholicism has ever known, today brought another high-profile milestone in the the clergy sex-abuse crisis as, for the first time, a US church official accused of cover-up entered a Philadelphia courtroom to stand criminal trial.

Thirteen months after a second grand jury probing the Philly church's handling of allegations levied indictments against three suspended or laicized clerics and a lay teacher accused of abusing two boys in the late 1990s, as well as charging the Chancery's former clergy-personnel chief, Msgr William Lynn (above) on two counts of endangering the welfare of a minor, the proceedings -- expected to last roughly three months -- are likely to be the most intense public examination of a US diocese's culture of conduct toward accused priests and victim-survivors in the era prior to the zero tolerance policy of the Dallas Charter.

As it unfolds, several bishops and other onetime archdiocesan administrators are likely to be called to testify, and the eerie possibility remains that the trial will witness the final public words of the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua through the showing of two days of videotaped testimony recorded weeks before the retired prelate's late January death at 88.

With a gag order barring media comment from all parties to the case, little of what's to come is known beyond matters disclosed in open court over months of pre-trial hearings. Among key aspects of what has emerged, however, a February ruling granted a prosecution request to admit evidence from a trove of alleged "prior bad acts" -- the archdiocese's handling of some 30 abuse claims beyond those directly at issue in the trial. Some of the files date back half a century.

Another major face-off is expected to take place over a freshly-produced document: a confidential 1994 report prepared by Lynn which named 37 priests who were either suspected or found "guilty" of abusing minors in canonical processes. At the time, most of the men remained in ministry, or retained full faculties in retirement.

According to a handwritten note found with the new evidence, four copies of the list -- thought to comprise the original and all its duplicates -- were shredded "on the basis of a directive" from Bevilacqua after the document was discussed at a senior staff meeting. Written by the then-deputy moderator of the curia, Msgr James Molloy, the memo's postscript said that the shredding was witnessed by then-Fr Joseph Cistone, then an assistant to the vicar-general, who became an auxiliary of Philadelphia a decade later and was named to head Michigan's Saginaw diocese in 2009. (Molloy died in early 2006, shortly after the release of the first grand jury report.)

Said to have been discovered in 2006 in a neglected Chancery safe, the file was given to the court by the archdiocese in the days following Bevilacqua's death. Responding to the document's appearance, Lynn's lawyers amplified their recently-introduced strategy of asserting that the prime culpability for a cover-up lay with his superiors, and moved that the monsignor's charges be dropped. For its part, a prosecution rebuttal left open the possibility that the "smoking gun" could lead to further charges, whether for Lynn or others.

In the wake of the memo's disclosure, a retired cleric cited as "guilty" on the list was placed on administrative leave for a four decade-old act with a 17 year-old girl, and the archdiocese's longtime in-house attorney, Timothy Coyne, was suddenly removed and replaced by a new legal team.

An announcement circulated to the archdiocese's pastors and staff attributed Coyne's leave to unspecified "current legal circumstances."

In a separate instance, the 2011 grand jury reported that the Chancery counsel "could not explain why" several pages subject to its subpoena "were not handed over... until [prosecutors] learned that they existed and asked for them specifically."

On the bench, meanwhile, trial Judge M. Theresa Sarmina stoked protests from the defense during jury selection with a late January remark in open court, reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, that "Anybody that doesn't think there is widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic church is living on another planet."

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All in all, the proceedings promise to yet again embroil the church in the nation's fourth-largest media market through the summer, and are already drawing considerable attention worldwide.

The trial begins as much of the 1.2 million-member Philadelphia fold is still reeling from the recently-announced closing or merger of some 36 parish elementary schools -- the largest single consolidation of an education system ever undertaken by an American diocese. The final figure was reduced from an initial proposal to cut 49 schools after an appeal process devised by the freshly-arrived Archbishop Charles Chaput OFM Cap. upended over a quarter of the recommendations made by a year-long Blue Ribbon study chartered by his predecessor. In addition, a last-minute lay-led effort that raised $12 million within days salvaged the four archdiocesan high schools the panel targeted for closure.

At the same time, Lynn isn't the only onetime top official of Philadelphia Chancery currently under court scrutiny: earlier this month saw the arrest of the archdiocese's former chief financial officer, Anita Guzzardi, on charges of stealing more than $900,000 from church funds over six years.

Long the archdiocesan controller, Guzzardi was named CFO in the final days of Cardinal Justin Rigali's tenure last June. She was removed from the post within two weeks of her appointment, after an external report of discrepancies triggered an in-house investigation, which led to a civil probe.

Beyond the criminal courts, the archdiocese faces a pending civil docket of at least seven abuse-related lawsuits.

In a December message to the faithful on his new charge's challenges, the Capuchin prelate wrote that "the harsh media environment likely to surround the criminal trial ... will further burden our lay people and our clergy. But it cannot be avoided."

Having inherited what many church observers consider to be the most fraught situation an American bishop has been tasked to face in the last half-century, Chaput said that his archdiocese's task going forward would be "to renew the witness of the church; to clear away the debris of human failure from the beauty of God’s word and to restore the joy and zeal of our Catholic discipleship."

While national and local victim-survivors and their advocates have trumpeted the trial as a "landmark" in their quest for the accountability of church administrators implicated in the transfer of accused clerics, the famously cohesive Philadelphia presbyterate has largely rallied around Lynn, viewing the former Secretary for Clergy as the proverbial "fall guy" for the decisions enacted by those above him.

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Returning to the case at hand, while today's opening arguments were scheduled from last August, a last-minute guilty plea on Thursday from one of the ex-clerics charged with abuse led the defense to petition for a new jury, alleging that the late shift could bias the panel.

Heard at the start of this morning's session, the motion -- whose acceptance would've delayed arguments for several weeks -- was declined.

Having accepted a plea bargain with the prosecution, Edward Avery's potential maximum jail sentence of 35 years was reduced to two and a half to five years. A foster parent of several Hmong children during his ministry, he is not required to testify as part of the agreement.

Avery was charged with six abuse-related counts and an added conspiracy claim, which was leveled on each of the defendants following the grand jury's indictments. He was dismissed from the clerical state by Rome in March 2006.

Even as the cover-up counts against Lynn have made this trial the public centerpiece of the Philadelphia imbroglio, a religious priest and the lay teacher likewise charged by the 2011 investigation are slated to be tried separately in September. Placed on administrative leave in the grand jury's wake, the monsignor -- who was transferred from the Chancery post to a high-profile suburban pastorate in 2004 -- is being tried alongside a suspended archdiocesan priest, Fr James Brennan, whose alleged abuse Lynn is accused of having covered up.

While Lynn's attorneys have increasingly implicated his superiors as the core of his defense, Brennan's counsel is expected to undermine the credibility of his accuser, citing the alleged victim's history of crime and drug abuse.

On a related note, tomorrow brings a preliminary hearing for Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St Joseph, who was indicted last fall on a misdemeanor count of failing to report suspicions of child abuse in a case involving a priest accused of possessing child pornography.

The first US prelate to be charged amid the scandals' decade-long fallout, Finn pled not guilty to the count. A subsequent deal with prosecutors in another county of his Missouri diocese avoided a second indictment.

At tomorrow's proceeding, local reports say that the bishop's lawyers will seek to have the charge dismissed.

PHOTOS: Reuters