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Landmark Catholic priest abuse trial begins in Philadelphia

PHILADELPHIA -- After nine years and two grand jury reports, prosecutors have brought a landmark case to trial that explores how the Archdiocese of Philadelphia dealt with child sex-abuse complaints against scores of Roman Catholic priests.

Monsignor William Lynn is the first U.S. church official ever charged over his handling of abuse complaints. He supervised more than 800 priests as the secretary for clergy in Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004.

Prosecutors charge that Lynn kept dangerous priests in parish work around children to protect the church's reputation and avoid scandal. They say the church kept secret files dating to 1948 that show a long-standing conspiracy to doubt sex abuse victims and protect priests.

Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Coelho called the case "a battle between right and wrong within the archdiocese and the office of secretary for clergy."

Defense lawyer Thomas Bergstrom said Monday that Lynn had the "ugly job" of overseeing sex abuse complaints, but that Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua alone determined priest assignments and transfers.

"There is documentary evidence that the sexual abuse of children happened in the Catholic Church," Bergstrom said. "We're not going to run from that. He (Lynn), perhaps alone, is the one who tried to correct it."

Solemn in court
Lynn, 61, appeared solemn in court, where he has appeared over the past few months for pretrial hearings and jury selection.

He has been under investigation for eight years, through two grand jury investigations that blasted Bevilacqua and his successor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, saying they covered up child sex complaints lodged against more than 60 priests.

The church kept secret files dating back to 1948 that show a long-standing conspiracy to doubt sex abuse victims, protect priests and avoid scandal, Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Coelho said in opening statements.

"You can't protect the church without keeping the allegations in the dark," Coelho told jurors, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported. "He kept the parishioners in the dark and he kept the faithful in the dark."

Coelho called the case "a battle between right and wrong within the archdiocese and the office of secretary for clergy."

Coelho outlined the decades-old sexual abuse complaints found buried in secret archives to build a case against Monsignor William Lynn, who supervised priests as secretary for clergy from 1992 through 2004. Lynn is the first U.S. church official charged for his administrative role in the sex abuse crisis.

He is on trial with the Rev. James Brennan, who is charged with the attempted rape of a 14-year-old boy in 1996. Both men entered not guilty pleas before the jury Monday.

Co-defendant Edward Avery, a defrocked priest, entered a surprise guilty plea Thursday to a sexual assault charge and will serve 2½ to five years in prison. Avery also acknowledged that the archdiocese kept him in parish work despite knowing of an earlier complaint lodged against him, a point that could bolster the conspiracy charge against Lynn.

Coelho said the archdiocese did little or nothing about sex abuse complaints until the church's sex abuse scandal exploded in Boston in 2002.

"Victims are met with skepticism and priests are believed ... at all costs," Coelho said, speaking softly to the jury.

'Warning signs or red flags'
Attorneys for Lynn and Brennan plan to attack the credibility of the priests' troubled adult accusers, though that strategy took a hit last week when Avery pleaded guilty, confirming one accuser's account of a brutal 1999 sexual assault inside a church sacristy. All three priests were to be tried together before Avery admitted that he abused a 10-year-old altar boy.

Prosecutors say the 61-year-old Lynn transferred priests to new parishes when a problem arose or told parishioners that their priest was taking a "health leave" when he was going for therapy or to a "safe" assignment at an old-age home. Before long, problem priests were back in parish work, with unsupervised access to children.

"By ignoring warning signs or red flags, Fr. Lynn kept Brennan and Avery in ministry, where they were able to hurt children," Coelho said.

Lynn remains the focal point of the trial. He could get up to 28 years in prison if convicted of two counts each of conspiracy and child endangerment.

He has argued that he prepared a list of 37 accused priests in 1994 and sent it up the chain to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua — only to have Bevilacqua have it shredded. The cardinal died this year, but his videotaped deposition could be played at trial.

The trial will be closely followed by Catholics across the country, including some who say their lives were destroyed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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