By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A judge on Monday refused to dismiss charges against the highest ranking cleric in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia pedophilia scandal, saying dramatic new evidence from the church's "secret archives" was not enough to derail the trial.
With jury selection already underway, Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina made the ruling in the case against Monsignor William Lynn, who would be first church official to stand trial in a child sex abuse case if opening arguments begin as scheduled on March 26.
Lynn, 61, who is charged with conspiracy and child endangerment for covering up for predator priests, sat stoically behind his lawyers and listened.
"I do not feel there is any legal basis for your motion," Sarmina said after a heated courtroom debate between lawyers for each side.
In a last-minute motion to dismiss the case filed on Friday, defense lawyers said they had just found a 1994 memo in which a high-ranking church official said he shredded a list of 35 abusive priests under orders from Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, then Philadelphia's archbishop.
They said Lynn, who served as secretary of the clergy under Bevilacqua, had put together the list on his own initiative, culling the names from a longer list of 323 priests in the church's "secret archives." The defense said soon after it was created, the list was destroyed under a directive from Bevilacqua, who died last month at age 88.
Charges of a cover-up against Lynn should be dismissed, the defense lawyers argued, because the real criminal was Bevilacqua and his top advisors.
But prosecutors argued the charges should stick, saying in court papers filed on Monday that there is no legal merit to Lynn's "newly fashioned defense - a combination of the dead-guy-did-it and the I-was-only-following-orders defenses."
Prosecutors argued the dramatic and sudden appearance of the memo in the initial stages of jury selection "serves no other purpose other than to pollute the pool of jurors."
Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington said the defense was simply trying to paint a picture of the monsignor as "poor, poor pitiful Lynn."
Lynn will be tried with a former archdiocese school teacher and a priest who are charged with sexual abusing children between 1996 and 1999.
All parties in the case are under a court-issued gag order which restricts them from commenting on the matter.
(Editing By Barbara Goldberg and Paul Thomasch)