PHILADELPHIA (CN) - An unprecedented clergy sex-abuse trial began Monday with claims that a cardinal's aide "did his damndest" at the nearly impossible job of identifying predatory priests.
Monsignor William Lynn, 61, is the highest-ranking member of the Roman Catholic Church in America to go to trial on a child endangerment charge.
The case against Lynn is unique because it stems from his administrative role overseeing hundreds of priests as clergy secretary for the Philadelphia Archdiocese between 1992 and 2004.
Part of Lynn's job as clergy secretary was to investigate complaints of clergy sex abuse.
Last February, a grand jury report from the Philadelphia District Attorney said Lynn failed at that job miserably, and criminally.
Lynn is not charged with sexually assaulting a minor, but his four co-defendants were.
The Rev. James Brennan, 48, is accused of putting his penis in a 14-year-old's buttocks during a sleepover. The Rev. Charles Engelhardt, 65, former parochial school teacher Bernard Shero, 49, and defrocked priest Edward Avery, 69, allegedly raped a 10-year-old altar boy over a decade ago.
While Brennan is on trial with Lynn, Avery took a plea deal last week. Engelhardt and Shero will be tried separately in September.
At the start of Lynn's jury trial Monday, prosecutors characterized the monsignor as "the keeper of secrets" who sacrificed the welfare of children to keep scandal at bay.
His chief concern when dealing with sex-abuse complaints was not shielding families from child-molesting clerics, Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Coelho said. Rather, that concern was "keeping a lid on scandal, keeping it in the dark."
"The protection of children is the furthest thing from defendant Lynn's mind," Coelho said. "He paid lip service to the children's protection, protecting the church from scandal at all costs."
She said Lynn believed "secrecy is the way to avoid scandal for the church" and worked hard to ensure that complaints about dangerous priests "weren't brought out in the light, but kept in the dark."
The jurors heard a retrospective of failure from the prosecution, which noted about a dozen case studies in which credible abuse allegations were allegedly not merely ignored, but were actively suppressed.
While some of those incidents occurred years before Lynn became clergy secretary, the prosecutor said Lynn had "a wide breadth of knowledge and understanding" about the predator priests because of his access to the Secret Archives - a locked safe on the 12th floor of the Archdiocese's downtown headquarters containing a historical record of complaints levied against clerics.
Under Lynn, "the victims are met with skepticism and the priests are believed at all costs," Coelho said.
In addition to mishandling abuse complaints, Lynn conspired to facilitate sex abuse by "put[ing priests] in parishes where they would have access to children," Coelho said.
The former Rev. Avery, who pleaded guilty last week to sexually assaulting a minor and conspiring to endanger children, is one such priest whom prosecutors have linked to Lynn. He faces up to five years in prison under the deal.
Avery was a part-time disc jockey and a purported advocate for the Hmong in Philadelphia, a community of tribal people who left Thai refugee camps for the United States beginning in the 1970s.
But prosecutors say there was a much darker side to the "smiling padre," who they said had oral sex with 10-year-old altar boy over a decade ago while living at the St. Jerome parish in Philadelphia.
They say Avery arrived at St. Jerome after Lynn recommended that Avery live at a parish with an attached school.
Lynn made that recommendation knowing that Avery had been discharged from a church-run treatment program for sexual offenders after fondling a boy's genitals, according to the grand jury report.
Lynn failed to intervene after being told that Avery had "adopted" six Hmong children, even though Avery had been ordered to stay away from adolescents, prosecutors say.
"This is just a straightforward case," Coelho told jurors.
When you're dealing with priests credibly accused of sex abuse, "you don't put them in a position where they would be near children," she said.
Lynn's attorney, Thomas Bergstrom, didn't deny that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has a serious problem with pedophile priests.
"You know, if that's the case, that's the case. But that's not this case, and that's not his case," Bergstrom said, pointing emphatically to Lynn, a squat man with a ruddy, jowly face, dressed in clerical garb.
In fact, "he, and perhaps he alone, tried to correct it," Bergstrom said.
Lynn's position put him in charge of more than 800 priests, the defense said. His investigations led him to clerics who often flat-out denied abuse allegations or were not under his direct supervision.
"That was a hard job," Bergstrom said. "That was a tough job. It was an ugly job ... but he did it."
Lynn claims that he had zero contact with the two alleged victims described in the grand jury report.
"He has never known them," Bergstrom told jurors. "He has never seen them. He has never spoken to [them]. He has never cared for them."
"But yet he is charged with endangering their welfare," he said.
The defense says jurors will likely hear many stories of alleged clergy abuse, noting the "dozen other priests" Coelho mentioned in her opening statement.
But Bergstrom said these stories should lead jurors to ask: "What does it have to do with Brennan, and what does it have to do with Avery, and what does it have to do with Monsignor Lynn?"
Lynn claims that he sent a list of 35 priests facing the most credible sex-abuse allegations "up the chain of command" to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who was archbishop of the 1.5-million-member Philadelphia Archdiocese from 1988 to 2003.
"That list was shredded" on the cardinal's orders, Bergstrom said.
"Monsignor Lynn had no authority ... to assign priests anywhere," and it was Bevilacqua who assigned Avery to St. Jerome, he said.
Though Bevilacqua died in January at 88, jurors may still hear a videotaped deposition that the cardinal gave in his final weeks.
The trial could last months.
Read the Top 8
Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.