March 25th, 2012
06:24 PM ET
By Ross Levitt and Susan Candiotti, CNN
(CNN) – Opening arguments are scheduled for Monday in Philadelphia in the first case in which an official of a Roman Catholic archdiocese has been accused of protecting abusive priests by moving them from parish to parish.
Monsignor William Lynn has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy and endangering the welfare of a child. Lynn served as the vicar of clergy in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004, a position in which he was responsible for investigating reports that priests had sexually abused children.
A grand jury alleged that he knowingly allowed priests accused of abuse to continue in the ministry in roles in which they had access to children, according to the district attorney's office. Lynn "acted as if his job was to protect the abuser, never the abused," a January 2011 grand jury report concluded.
But Lynn's lawyers argue that the monsignor had informed his superiors - including Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who died in January - that priests in the archdiocese were assaulting children.
The Lynn case has had reverberations across the country, including the October 2011 arrest of Bishop Robert W. Finn in Kansas City, Missouri, on charges that he failed to report suspected child abuse by a priest. Finn pleaded not guilty.
Lynn's case has already had some surprises in the weeks leading up to this point. The latest came Thursday, when a co-defendant, defrocked priest Edward Avery, accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 2-1/2 to 5 years in prison.
The deal does not require Avery to testify against Lynn, leaving open the question of how it ultimately affects the case.
"This is a very mysterious plea," says CNN legal analyst Paul Callan. "And it will be interesting to see as the trial rolls on why this plea was really entered, because there's something going on that we don't know about at this point in time."
In February, the defense had a bombshell of its own. Lynn's attorneys presented a document that seems to show that in 1994, Bevilacqua ordered shredded a document prepared by Lynn that listed the names of suspected abusers.
In jury selection process, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina as saying in open court, "Anybody that doesn't' think there is widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet."
The comment prompted calls for Sarmina to recuse herself. She has not.
Because of a court-mandated gag order, all parties in the case are prevented from commenting. But Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, says Sarmina was inappropriate and incorrect.
"We don't have a problem today," Donahue said. "We had it in the '60s and '70s and in the first part of the 1980s. If [Sarmina] goes in there with that mindset, I think she should have recused herself. She's already –as far as I'm concerned - she's damaged goods."
Victims' advocates say the Catholic Church still has a problem with priest abuse.
"We have seen no evidence either that the Catholic Church has really changed anything," says Barbara Blaine, president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "We have seen them change their public relations and their statements, but we still haven't seen one bishop to be fired or publically punished for enabling or covering up for a sexual predator priests."
Blaine hopes this case will give survivors like Rich Green some justice.
Green, the nephew of deceased Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, says he was abused by a priest at a Philadelphia high school in 1990. The priest died in 1999, and the statute of limitations has run out on Green's ability to sue the Philadelphia archdiocese.
Green did receive a settlement from the Archdiocese of Wilmington, Delaware, where the priest's order is based, and says he plans to attend Lynn's trial as often as he can.
"We are asking for these people who are responsible for destroying our lives to be held accountable for what they did to us," Green said. "We are the ones telling the truth, and I don't understand why the Catholic Church can't tell the truth."
Finding the truth will be the job of a jury that is likely to hear testimony from alleged victims; a possible taped deposition from Bevilacqua; and perhaps from Lynn himself.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.