A Catholic church official has become the first in the US to be convicted of covering up clerical child sex abuse in a verdict that victim advocates say sends a clear message to others shielding paedophiles.
After 10 weeks of harrowing testimony and lengthy deliberations, a jury in Philadelphia found Monsignor William Lynn guilty of child endangerment relating to the handling of known predatory priests who were allowed to continue ministering to youths.
The 61-year-old was acquitted of two other charges, including conspiracy. But the sole conviction – for which he could serve up to seven years in prison – was welcomed by those pushing for prosecutors across the country to go after those in the church accused of turning a blind eye to systematic abuse.
Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (Snap), said: “I am just grateful that the verdict came down. It is a relief.
“I believe it sends a clear message to church officials everywhere that they can’t continue to get away with the covering up of sex crimes and the abuse of children.
She added: “I hope this encourages victims and those who have witnessed abuse to come forward and speak up. And I hope it will encourage prosecutors in other jurisdictions to investigate others involved in the same kind of behaviour – we know that this wasn’t only happening in Philadelphia, it was happening all over.”
Lynn’s conviction came after a near-three month trial during which more than a dozen victims testified about the wrenching abuse they suffered at the hands of revered priests in a power of authority.
A former seminarian said he was raped throughout high school at a priest’s mountain house.
Meanwhile a nun testified that she and two female relatives were sexually abused by a priest described by a church official as “one of the sickest people I ever knew”.
A further victim described being sexually assaulted as a 10-year-old altar boy in 1999 by the Reverand Edward Avery. The paedophile priest admitted the assault just days before Lynn’s trial and is now serving a two-and-a-half to five-year prison term.
Another victim of clerical sex abuse told the court: “I can’t explain the pain, because I’m still trying to figure it out today, but I have an emptiness where my soul should be.”
Now an adult, the witness told of how his mother sent him to a priest for counselling as an eighth-grader because he’d been sexually attacked by a family friend.
The trusted church figure proceeded to raped him, he told the jury.
Such abuse was allowed to happen because people like Lynn helped cover it up, prosecutors said.
On leave from the church since his arrest last year, the 61-year-old served as secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, mostly under Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.
The court heard that the late archbishop of Philadelphia had the final say on what to do with priests accused of abuse.
In many cases he simply sent suspected or known paedophiles to new churches and dressed down anyone who complained, according to testimony.
He also ordered the shredding of a 1994 list that warned him that the archdiocese had three diagnosed paedophiles, a dozen confirmed predators and at least 20 more possible abusers in its midst. Prosecutors learned this year that a copy had been stashed in a safe.
Defence lawyers say Lynn tried to document the complaints, get priests into treatment and alert the cardinal to the growing crisis.
But prosecutors countered that Lynn did not act strongly enough to keep abusers away from children. Moreover no attempts were made to hand over suspected paedophiles in the clergy to the authorities.
The court heard of a pattern of lies when predatory priests were removed from a parish. Often they were simply sent to a new part of the archdiocese, without any warning being given to the new parish as to the suspected abuse of children.
“They put so many innocent children in danger,” assistant district attorney Patrick Blessington said in his closing remarks. He added that it often took years, sometimes decades for victims to come forward.
“That’s what’s so scary about this. We have no idea how many victims are out there,” he told the court.
The mixed verdict – and length of time the jury took to reach a decision – is indicative of the difficulty prosecutors face in getting a criminal conviction when it comes to holding administrator to account for hushing up child sex abuse in the Catholic Church.
William McMurry, an attorney who has represented scores of victims of clerical sex abuse in the US, said he hoped that Lynn’s conviction would spur other jurisdictions into going after those accused of turning a blind eye to the abuse.
He said: “This will at least send a message to the institutions that in the future it now appears that juries will hold administrators responsible. The clergy, the administrators, they all share responsibility in an epidemic of child abuse.”
In a statement following the conviction of Lynn, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, said it offers a “heartfelt apology” to victims of clerical abuse, adding that it was now a “more vigilant guardian” committed to providing support and assistance to parishioners as “they and the Church seek to more deeply understand sexual violence”.