June 22nd, 2012
03:18 PM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) – A Philadelphia sex abuse trial in which a jury reached a mixed verdict on a church higher-up accused of protecting sexually abusive priests was closely watched for its national implications.
Monsignor William Lynn was convicted of one count of child endangerment on Friday, and victims groups hope that conviction will pave the way for prosecutors across the country to go after church officials – and not just accused priests – in confronting sex abuse.
The three-month trial's more immediate effect, though, is the especially acute toll it has taken in Philadelphia, historically one of the nation’s most Catholic cities.
“The Philadelphia Catholic culture holds the priests in great esteem, and this has really destroyed that pristine image of the Philadelphia Catholic priest,” says Jim Martin, a Jesuit priest who was born and raised in Philadelphia.
Since a grand jury report last year accused dozens of Philadelphia priests of sex abuse, more than two dozen priests have been placed on leave, and a new archbishop has been installed to help turnaround the scandal-plagued archdiocese.
The trial marked the first time that U.S. prosecutors charged not just priests who allegedly committed abuses but also church leaders for failing to stop them.
“The grand jury report here and its fallout signaled the biggest change in Philadelphia Catholicism in 200 years,” said Rocco Palmo, an influential Catholic blogger who’s based in Philadelphia. “There have been decades of malaise and frustration here, but the grand jury report sparked a wholesale call for change.”
At the same time, Palmo – whose blog often breaks news about the Vatican – said that Friday’s partial verdict presents an opportunity for Catholic Philadelphia to move on.
“There’s been a lot of trial fatigue and people are numb after hearing shocking thing after shocking thing for 16 months,” Palmo said. “This is the beginning of turning the corner, of moving on from what has been a cycle of pain.”
While the jury found Lynn guilty on one charge, it was unable to reach a verdict against his co-defendant, the Rev. James Brennan, who was charged with the attempted rape of a 14-year-old altar boy and endangering the welfare of a child.
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.
“Even non-Catholics and even Jews here identify themselves in terms of what parish they grew up in,” Palmo said. “Turning Philadelphia around is going to be an indication of the degree to which the church can move on from the sex abuse crisis and rebuild from the ashes.”
On Thursday, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput announced he's shedding 45 diocesan jobs and pulling the plug on the archdiocesan newspaper in the face of a budget deficit that exceeds $17 million this year.
“The extraordinary legal and professional costs of the past 16 months, while burdensome, played little role in the current budget decisions, according to the Archbishop,” the archdiocese said in a statement.
“The financial and organizational difficulties facing the Archdiocese are structural and have been building for many years. They can no longer be sustained.”
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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 and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.