By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A priest testified on Tuesday that the Catholic Church had followed the advice of legal counsel in keeping quiet about molestation charges as lawyers for Monsignor William Lynn opened their case in the trial over the Philadelphia child sex abuse scandal.
Lynn, 61, the most senior U.S. clergyman to go on trial in the Roman Catholic Church's pedophilia scandal, is charged with child endangerment and conspiracy over accusations he covered up child sex abuse allegations against priests, many of whom were simply transferred to unsuspecting parishes.
He faces the possibility of 28 years in prison if convicted.
Monsignor Michael McCulken testified that the church declined to call law enforcement authorities when it learned of child sex abuse claims because "they were beyond the statute of limitations" at the time.
"Our legal counsel said there was no requirement to report," said McCulken, who was the assistant secretary of the clergy under Lynn from 1994 to 1997.
Lynn supervised Philadelphia priests for 12 years. With 1.5 million members, the Philadelphia Archdiocese is the sixth largest in the United Nations.
In questioning the witness, defense attorney Jeff Lindy sought to portray the office in the secretary of the clergy operation as overworked and understaffed, with only two clerics, McCulken and Lynn, plus lay assistants charged with looking into abuse cases.
McCulken testified that the duties of investigating and acting on allegations of child sexual abuse are now shared by some 15 officials in four offices in the archdiocese, one of which is headed by a former prosecutor who is experienced in child abuse issues.
He also portrayed Lynn as compassionate when dealing with people reporting abuse to the church.
"Sometimes they would share not only the allegations, but also the experience of their lives," McCulken said in answer to a question. "He (Lynn) would offer compassion."
When it came to handling accusations, McCulken said, accused priests would be called to the archdiocese and confronted with the allegations. If a priest admitted the molestation, Lynn would relieve him of his duties and send him for counseling at a church facility called St. John Vianney Center, he said.
Also on trial is the Reverend James Brennan, who is accused of attempted rape of a 14-year-old youth.
The opening of the defense case on Tuesday came only two days after the archdiocese, in an unrelated move, declared two clerics as not suitable for ministry.
Monsignor Hugh Campbell, 77, who is retired, was deemed unsuitable because of what the church said was self-reported sexual abuse of a minor.
Monsignor George J. Mazzotta, 73, was found unsuitable after the archdiocese found that an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor had been substantiated.
(Editing by Paul Thomasch and Mohammad Zargham)