'How a scandal in Philadelphia exposed documents that reveal a high-level conspiracy to cover up decades of sexual abuse'
The five co-defendants sit close enough to shake hands in the Philadelphia courtroom, but they never once acknowledge one another.
Father James Brennan, a 47-year-old priest accused of raping a 14-year-old boy, looks sad and stooped in a navy sweater, unshaven and sniffling.
Edward Avery, a defrocked priest in his sixties, wears an unsettlingly pleasant expression on his face, as though he's mentally very far away. He and two other defendants – the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, also in his sixties, and Bernard Shero, a former Catholic schoolteacher in his forties – are accused of passing around "Billy," a fifth-grade altar boy.
According to the charges, the three men raped and sodomized the 10-year-old, sometimes making him perform stripteases or getting him drunk on sacramental wine after Mass.
Heinous as the accusations are, the most shocking – and significant – are those against the fifth defendant, Monsignor William Lynn. At 60, Lynn is portly and dignified, his thin lips pressed together and his double chin held high. In a dramatic fashion statement, he alone has chosen to wear his black clerical garb today, a startling reminder that this is a priest on trial, a revered representative of the Catholic Church, not to mention a high-ranking official in Philadelphia's archdiocese.
Lynn, who reported directly to the cardinal, was the trusted custodian of a trove of documents known in the church as the "Secret Archives files."
The files prove what many have long suspected: that officials in the upper echelons of the church not only tolerated the widespread sexual abuse of children by priests but conspired to hide the crimes and silence the victims.
Lynn is accused of having been the archdiocese's sex-abuse fixer, the man who covered up for its priests. Incredibly, after a scandal that has rocked the church for a generation, he is the first Catholic official ever criminally charged for the cover-up.
"All rise," the court crier intones as the judge enters, and Lynn stands, flanked by his high-powered lawyers, whose hefty fees are being paid by the archdiocese.
The implications of the trial are staggering for the church as a whole.
In sheltering abusive priests, Lynn wasn't some lone wolf with monstrous sexual appetites, as the church has taken to portraying priests who have molested children.
According to two scathing grand-jury reports, protocols for protecting rapists in the clergy have been in place in Philadelphia for half a century, under the regimes of three different cardinals.
Lynn was simply a company man, a faithful bureaucrat who did his job exceedingly well.
His actions were encouraged by his superiors, who in turn received orders from their superiors – an unbroken chain of command stretching all the way to Rome.
In bringing conspiracy charges against Lynn, the Philadelphia district attorney is making a bold statement: that the Catholic hierarchy's failure to protect children from sexual abuse isn't the fault of an inept medieval bureaucracy, but rather the deliberate and criminal work of a cold and calculating organization. In a very real sense, it's not just Lynn who is on trial here. It's the Catholic Church itself.
The deluge of sexual-abuse cases in America's largest religious denomination began in 1985, when a Louisiana priest was sentenced to 20 years in prison after admitting to sexually abusing 37 boys.
But it wasn't until 2002, when civil suits in Boston revealed that Cardinal Bernard Law had shielded rapist priests, that the extent of the scandal became widely known.
In Germany, the church is overwhelmed by hundreds of alleged victims, and investigations are under way in Austria and the Netherlands.
In Ireland, the government recently issued a scathing report that documents how Irish clergy – with tacit approval from the Vatican – covered up the sexual abuse of children as recently as 2009......read more