Jury in Pa. priest-abuse case to view secret files

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Posted: Feb 15, 2012 4:18 PM
Jury in Pa. priest-abuse case to view secret files

Jurors picked over the next month to hear a landmark priest sex-abuse case will pore over two boxes of complaint files long buried in "secret archives" of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The files contain complaints lodged against dozens of Philadelphia priests over several decades, along with sex-therapy notes, legal advice and other sensitive material, according to summaries read aloud in recent pretrial hearings. The boxes were marked Exhibit 1 at a hearing Wednesday.

Defense lawyers for the first U.S. church official ever charged criminally for his oversight of accused priests objected to the exhibit. Monsignor William Lynn, 61, is charged with conspiracy and child endangerment.

But the secret files will be aired in court, save for a few documents excluded on hearsay or other grounds.

Jury selection starts Tuesday, and could take weeks given the church's huge presence in this largely Catholic city and the trial's expected four-month duration.

Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina refused Wednesday to step down from the case, denying defense claims that she is biased against the church and Lynn.

She said her comments about child-sex abuse being "widespread" in the Catholic church were taken out of context at a recent hearing on potential jury questions.

Sarmina also refused Lynn's latest motion to sever his criminal case from those of two priests charged with rape. Lynn _ a ruddy-faced, portly man who rose through the ranks to become a seminary dean and then a top aide to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua _ sat expressionless beside his sister in the courtroom.

Prosecutors call Lynn the keeper of the secret files during his years as secretary of clergy, from 1992 to 2004.

The priests behind the case files include one who allegedly pinned loincloths on naked boys playing Jesus, and whipped them, as part of a Passion play; one who held what prosecutors called "masturbation camps" at the rectory; and a pastor written up for complaining to Bevilacqua about an accused priest being transferred to his parish.

Sarmina ruled that the jury can hear about 22 of the accused priests, because Lynn knew about or took some action on their case files.

"They're admitted for the purpose of what was in his mind," Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington said in court Wednesday. "Everything he viewed _ which is basically the secret archive files _ is admitted to show his course of conduct."

Sarmina agreed, while reserving the right to exclude individual documents, and to give jurors "limiting" instructions on how they should weigh the evidence.

Lynn's lawyers object vehemently to the jury hearing about the other priests not on trial. Some of them are no longer alive. The defense had hoped to limit the case solely to Lynn's involvement with his two co-defendants, the Rev. James Brennan, 48, and former priest Edward Avery, 69.

They fear he will be swept up in the outrage over the alleged sins of priests throughout the archdiocese, and worldwide. Sarmina's recent comments heightened their concern.

She said anyone who doesn't think there was widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church "is living on another planet. Look at what happened in Boston and the convictions there," Sarmina said on Jan. 31, according to a defense motion. "You're not taking into account Ireland, or Mexico or Boston, all of these places where there (have) been proven admissions?"

Sarmina said jurors could fairly judge Lynn's case even if they view the problem as widespread, much as they could sit on a drug case while believing the country has a drug problem.

Despite heated arguments over evidence Wednesday, the two sides agree on many of the underlying facts. The issue comes down to their interpretation, Blessington said.

Defense lawyers will argue that Lynn took orders from Bevilacqua. The cardinal died last month at age 88. However, prosecutors preserved his testimony in a seven-hour videotaped deposition two months ago, and could show some or all of it in court.

The defense might not object. Defense lawyer Jeffrey Lindy said he also welcomed the use of some of the material in the secret files.

"Monsignor Lynn has a story to tell (too) in this trial," Lindy said.