April 21st, 2012
08:00 AM ET
By Sarah Hoye, CNN
Philadelphia (CNN) – It's been four weeks since the beginning of the trial of the highest ranking U.S. Catholic Church leader charged with covering up the crimes of priests against children.
The main issue is not whether sex abuse occurred, as defense attorneys have pointed out, but how the Archdiocese of Philadelphia - Monsignor William Lynn in particular - handled the allegations against priests in the diocese.
The trial against Lynn and the alleged offending priest, the Rev. James Brennan, has already created a shake-up in Philadelphia's Catholic leadership, according to Catholic commentator and blogger Rocco Palmo.
"It's a shift you see once in 200 years," Palmo told CNN.
And, he adds, the trial could have a worldwide ripple effect on the entire Catholic Church, which has been rocked to its core by widespread allegations of sex abuse by priests.
On March 26, jurors first began hearing graphic testimony from former Catholic schoolchildren, parishioners and police detectives alleging the lurid lifestyles of predator priests.
Lynn, 61, who served as the secretary for clergy under former Philadelphia Archbishop Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, is charged with child endangerment for his role in handling abuse complaints, including allegations against his co-defendant, Brennan, 48, who is charged with attempting to rape a 14-year-old boy in 1996.
Both men have pleaded not guilty.
Testimony has been heated as teary witnesses take the stand describing the alleged abuse by dozens of diocesan priests during overnight stays, at vacation homes or at parish rectories.
The trial has provided a rare behind-the-scenes portrait of one of the largest Catholic archdioceses in the United States. In addition to the graphic testimony, hundreds of pages of internal personnel files of priests accused of child sexual abuse - some of them confidential - are now part of the court record.
And that could have a deeper impact on Philadelphia's Catholic community, according to David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
"These revelations and disclosures have to help parishioners face the painful reality that, just like victims, they, too, have been horribly betrayed and misled," Clohessy said,
"When you see handwritten memos from very smart, high-level church officials, this unambiguous deception and selfishness really cuts through denial."
Questions over how abuse allegations were handled
Since late March, Lynn and Brennan have appeared daily before Common Pleas Judge Teresa Sarmina. Lynn, who was placed on administrative leave in February, dresses in his clerical collar, while Brennan, who was removed from active ministry in 2006 after a witness first came forward with his allegations, generally dons sport coats and trousers.
As the secretary for clergy in Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004, Lynn was responsible for the personnel matters for the more than 800 priests within the archdiocese, including investigating child sex abuse allegations against priests.
Lynn's defense team argues that the monsignor repeatedly sent word of child sex abuse up the chain of command and insists that he operated under strict orders from the archbishop - at the time, the late Cardinal Joseph Bevilacqua.
"There isn't anybody in this courthouse that would deny the sexual abuse of children is awful. Monsignor Lynn knew it was awful," Tom Bergstrom, one of Lynn's four defense attorneys, said during his opening remarks. "The evidence will show that he, and perhaps he alone, is the one who tried to correct it.
"There is proof that sexual abuse happened in the Catholic Church. We're not here to run from that," Bergstrom said.
On the contrary, the Rev. Thomas Doyle - sworn in as an expert witness on Catholicism and its canon law - told jurors there were no church laws that prohibited archdiocese officials from going to police with the allegations of child sex abuse.
"If you're acting in the name of the bishop, you're the one acting. He's not pulling strings over you," he said. "If you're doing something illegal, you can't do it even if he told you to."
That's because the church's canon law does not trump civil law, he said.
He also pointed out that, according to new church guidelines adopted in 2002 following the church scandal in Boston, any U.S. priest who admitted abuse or was found guilty by investigators immediately must be removed from active ministry.
Since the trial's March 26 start, a number of alleged victims of clergy abuse have testified. Prosecutors are using the testimony of witnesses with allegations against priests who are not on trial to build their case that Lynn knowingly shuffled predator priests to unwitting parishes.
Just over a week into the trial, Brennan's lone accuser, a former altar boy, took the witness stand, alleging the priest had molested him during an overnight visit.
The man, now in his 30s, is part of the 2011 grand jury report whose claim falls within Pennsylvania's statute of limitations.
The witness spent nearly two days on the stand, breaking down each time he described an overnight stay with Brennan. He is a former Marine who was discharged because of mental health issues.
"I was a little boy. I didn't know what to do," he testified through sobs. "I was scared. I was afraid that if I said no he'd kill me or something."
The mother of the alleged victim, who testified the following week, said she will never know what happened between her son and Brennan, who she said was like a brother to her.
"I'll never forgive myself," she said.
A necessary shake-up?
With nearly 1.5 million members, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is one of the largest in the nation. Priests, particularly those in high-ranking positions, have an exceptional amount of power within the Catholic Church, especially in Philadelphia because of the church's deep roots in the community.
That status quo is being turned upside down amid the current crisis, Palmo said.
"I've seen more change in the last seven months than in 20 years," Palmo said. "It's not just because of the trial; it (the Archdiocese) needed a shake-up. That call was never heeded (before)."
Philadelphia's archdiocese has placed 23 priests on administrative leave, following the release of the 2011 grand jury report.
Defrocked priest Edward Avery was slated to go on trial with Lynn and Brennan, but he pleaded guilty last week to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and conspiracy to endanger the welfare of child, according to court documents.
Avery was sentenced to two and a half to five years in prison and turned himself in to authorities on April 2.
Philadelphia's priest abuse scandal has been unfolding for nearly nine years, and Palmo said the city's Catholic community is almost numb to the ongoing trial. They just want a resolution so they can move on with their lives, he said.
In fact, Catholic school closings and parish mergers in the City of Brotherly Love have eclipsed the clergy sex abuse trial, Palmo said.
"It was the schools that got people in the streets. It's one of the great ironies," he said. "People don't live Catholic identity here. They identify with their parish or school. Like politics, Catholicism is local."
Back inside Judge Teresa Sarmina's courtroom, 12 jurors and six alternates listen intently, their heads whipping between witnesses and attorneys as if they're watching a tennis match.
Gone is the throng of cameramen outside the courthouse doors (there are no cameras allowed in Pennsylvania courtrooms) who were present at the start of the trial, waiting to catch a glimpse of the defendants. Gone, too, are the rows of wooden benches crammed with reporters, and the number of public spectators has dwindled to a sparse peppering.
The trial is expected to wrap up in June, just as the trial of Penn State's former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky gets started. That trial is scheduled to start on June 5.
Both scandals represent a larger issue, according to Marci Hamilton, an attorney who has represented victims in clergy sex abuse cases - including recent suits against the Philadelphia archdiocese - as well as suits against Penn State in wake of the university's sex abuse scandal.
"I think we now know for certain that private institutions cannot be trusted to protect children on their own," Hamilton said. "I don't think it's any surprise the church was the first focus; it's the biggest institution. But they're just a cornerstone of the larger problem."
The heinous accusations against Sandusky and the priests, Hamilton said , have raised awareness nationwide about victims of child sex abuse and prevention.
"What I hope is that we will finally get past the churches and universities and start focusing on the majority of abuse, which happens within the family."
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.