PHILADELPHIA – Prosecutors on Monday accused the Archdiocese of Philadelphia of being an "unindicted co-conspirator" in a clergy sex abuse case and said the Roman Catholic Church fed predators a steady supply of children.
The comments came in a key hearing before the March trial of a high-ranking church official, a priest and a former priest.
Monsignor William Lynn, 61, is charged with conspiring with priests and church officials to keep priests accused of sex abuse in ministry and parishioners in the dark.
Common Pleas District Judge M. Teresa Sarmina must decide how much the jury will hear about the archdiocese's overall handling of sex abuse complaints.
Lynn's lawyer, Thomas Bergstrom, called it "nutty" and "dangerous" for prosecutors to bring in allegations that came before or after Lynn's stint as secretary for clergy. Lynn served in that role from 1992 to 2004, most of it under retired Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who's now 88 and in failing health.
Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti compared the accused priests to live bombs that Lynn left in a room without defusing.
"You're (still) on the hook" if the bomb later explodes, Cipolletti argued.
Lynn's co-defendants are former priest Edward V. Avery, who was defrocked in 2006, and the Rev. James Brennan, who remains a priest but is barred from active ministry. They have denied the charges.
Brennan, 48, is charged with abusing a 14-year-old in the mid-1990s, when he was on leave but still receiving monthly church stipends. Lynn, by then, knew of a series of prior complaints, some from nuns who said Brennan was living in a church residence with young men, one believed to be a former student. The nuns also complained to the archdiocese that he was throwing loud parties, though they didn't want it known they were the source of the complaints.
Lawyer William Brennan, no relation to his client, said the nuns were simply annoyed that Father Brennan was disturbing their peace.
"They're rats and they're wimps," he said of the religious women.
Prosecutors faulted Lynn for not investigating the living arrangements before Brennan had the chance to abuse others.
"If you saw what was in (his personnel) files, it should have raised some bells and whistles," Cipolletti argued.
Bergstrom said the abuse charged in the case occurred later, at Brennan's private residence, during his mid-1990s leave.
"Father Lynn had no control over what Father Brennan did or didn't do," Bergstrom complained.
"It doesn't sound like anybody had any control over anybody," the judge said.
Prosecutors want to tell jurors about dozens of priests accused in a 2005 grand jury report to prove that church officials had a history of ignoring the festering sex abuse problem. No charges were filed against the 63 priests named in that report because of legal time limits. Defense lawyers are trying to limit the testimony to Lynn's oversight of his two co-defendants.
Avery, 69, is charged with raping a 10-year-old altar boy who prosecutors say was passed on to another priest and teacher and raped again. Prosecutors say Avery also sexually assaulted other boys at various parishes, first on overnight trips to the shore or the Poconos, and later, when the trips became a concern to parishioners, in the church sacristy.
"The archdiocese is supplying him with an endless supply of victims," Cipolletti said Monday.
The judge asked if prosecutors consider the archdiocese "an unindicted co-conspirator."
"Certainly," Cipolletti said. "It's not like there aren't other people (in the archdiocese) involved. There absolutely are."
The February 2011 grand jury report blasted Bevilacqua and his successor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, for their handling of priest abuse complaints but said there wasn't enough evidence to charge them with any crimes.
Archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Farrell says the church can't comment on the "co-conspirator" accusation because of a gag order.
Lynn faces up to 28 years in prison if convicted. The archdiocese is paying his legal fees.
It's not immediately clear if Sarmina will rule from the bench on the scope of the evidence. The hearing will stretch into Tuesday.