PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - A monsignor who oversaw hundreds of priests in the Philadelphia Archdiocese was found guilty on Friday of one count of endangering the welfare of a child, making him the first senior U.S. Roman Catholic Church official to be convicted for covering up child sex abuse.
The jury acquitted Monsignor William Lynn on two other counts - conspiracy and another charge of child endangerment -after 10 weeks of testimony in a trial that raised questions about personal responsibility and institutional constraints within the church hierarchy.
Removing his black clerical jacket but leaving on his collar, a stoic Lynn, 61, was led out of the courtroom and into custody by deputy sheriffs as his family members wept.
“Every juror there wanted to do justice. ... We wanted to do what was right,” jury foreman Isa Logan, 35, a bank customer service representative, told reporters outside the courtroom.
Sentencing for Lynn, who faces up to seven years in prison, was set for August 13 by Judge M. Teresa Sarmina.
“This is a monumental victory for the named and un-named victims,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. “This was about evil men who did evil things to children.”
While the district attorney’s office argued that Lynn should immediately be jailed, the judge said she would consider house arrest if the defense asked for it.
The jury deliberated 13 days before reaching the mixed decision in the trial of Lynn, who, prosecutors charged, covered up child sex abuse allegations, often by transferring priests to unsuspecting parishes.
Lawyers for Lynn said they planned to appeal the case.
“He’s really upset,” said one of his attorneys, Jeff Lindy. “He’s upset, he’s crushed. He didn’t want anything other than to help kids, he’s crushed about this.”
Barbara Dorris, outreach director for Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the verdict put the Church on notice that it can no longer “shield and protect” abusive priests and expect to get away with it.
“This is a strong message, and we’re grateful for that message that kids’ safety has to come first,” she said.
The case against Lynn was part of a broader indictment against clergy in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. One of the priests, Reverend James Brennan, was tried along with Lynn and faced charges of attempted rape and child endangerment. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the counts against Brennan.
A third priest who was scheduled to go on trial with Lynn and Brennan pleaded guilty at the last minute to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old altar boy at church in 1999.
The trial re-focused attention on a sweeping sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Church, costing billions in settlements, driving prominent U.S. dioceses into bankruptcy and testing the faith of Roman Catholics.
“A verdict like this has to be regarded as very important,” said Martin Guggenheim, a professor at New York University School of Law who specializes in children’s rights and family law. “From now on, the Lynns of this world are going to act in the knowledge that there is a real risk of being arrested if they don’t do enough.”
Lynn’s job was supervising 800 priests, including investigating sex abuse claims from 1992 to 2004, in the nation’s sixth largest archdiocese, with 1.5 million members.
Instead of looking out for children, prosecutors said, he chose to protect the Church from scandal and potential loss of financial support.
The defense said Lynn tried to address cases of pedophile priests, compiling a list in 1994 of 35 accused predators and writing memos to suggest treatment and suspensions.
He was hampered because he could merely make recommendations to his boss, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, the defense said. Bevilacqua died in January at age 88.
According to Lynn’s testimony, which the jury foreman said was key to reaching a verdict, the cardinal said any mention of an accused priest’s move from a parish should cite health reasons, never the accusations. Testimony also showed Bevilacqua ordered the list of accused priests be destroyed, although a lone copy was found in an archdiocese safe.
Prosecutors used that list to show the Church was aware of predatory priests and covered up their existence, while the defense used the list to argue it showed Lynn attempting to stop the problem.
“This has been a difficult time for all Catholics, especially victims of sexual abuse,” the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said in a statement. “The lessons of the last year have made our Church a more vigilant guardian of our people’s safety.”
The U.S. scandal erupted in 1992 with a series of sex abuse cases uncovered in the Archdiocese of Boston that helped encourage other victims of abuse to come forward.
Some 3,000 civil lawsuits alleging abuse were filed in the United States between 1984 and 2009. An unknown number of complaints - believed to be vastly greater - were settled privately, often with confidentiality agreements, experts say.
The Church has paid out some $2 billion in settlements to victims, bankrupting a handful of dioceses.
Hefty multi-million dollar sums were paid out by Catholic archdioceses in Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles. The Diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, declared bankruptcy in 2009, and the Diocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, did so in 2011.
At issue in Lynn’s trial was whether he could or should have taken action outside the Church’s hierarchy and whether strict obedience to its elders was defensible.
Logan, the jury foreman and a U.S. Army veteran, said Lynn had a personal responsibility to report the abuse to the proper authorities.
“I am a human being before I’m a soldier, so if he’s telling me something to do that is incorrect, then I’ll be court-martialed before I do something like that,” he said.
The decision comes as another jury in Pennsylvania is deciding an even higher-profile child sex abuse case, against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky.
Reporting by Dave Warner; Writing by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Paul Thomasch, Todd Eastham and Paul Simao