Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Sins of the Past — Evidence Of "Prior Bad Acts" By The Archdiocese May Be A Daily Issue

Although many Catholic priests have been prosecuted and then convicted of abusing children, this trial is unique because Monsignor Lynn is the first Catholic official prosecuted and brought to a jury trial on criminal charges of endangering the welfare of children by failing to investigate and report allegations of child abuse.  The only similar case in the United States involves Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn, and that case is still in its early stages, with a judge poised to rule on whether the prosecution can continue at all.

The prosecution of Monsignor Lynn thus raises a number of novel legal issues that do not arise in a typical child molestation prosecution, even one involving religious figures. In many ways, the prosecution is closer to a white collar fraud prosecution than a molestation prosecution, because Lynn's relationship with the rest of the church is central to the case. In his opening statement, Lynn's lawyer confirmed months of speculation that Lynn was going to defend himself by conceding that he knew about the allegations, that he tried to act on them, but that he was stymied in his efforts by others in the Archdiocese, including Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. As Lynn's lawyer told the jury in his opening statement, "You're going to see that Msgr. Lynn did his damndest to get a handle on this awful issue." To tell if that's true or not, the jury is going to have to see inside the Archdiocese.

Although the church itself is not on trial, on many levels it is impossible to separate the two.  Lynn was acting in his duties as a church official the entire time, and was also a participant in many investigations of — or the failure to investigate — other allegations of child abuse.  Lynn’s lawyers had argued strenuously for the court to exclude from the trial any evidence of other abuse allegations beyond those made specifically against his co-defendants, Priests Avery and Brennan, but Judge Sarmina denied that request, ruling that the prosecutors could bring in evidence of “prior bad acts” including Lynn’s failure to properly follow-up on more than two dozen other allegations of abuse by priests under his supervision.

Nonetheless, even with that general denial of the defendants’ request, each piece of evidence that goes in front of the jury needs to be carefully evaluated for admissibility by the court, including weighing the "probative value" of the evidence versus "the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, or misleading the jury" under Pennsylvania Rule of Evidence 403. In the end it is unlikely that a jury will hear the full scope and extent of each one of those scuttled child abuse investigations, but rather only those parts relevant to the questions of what Lynn’s and the Archdiocese’s normal practices were, if those practices were appropriate, and if they were followed in the sexual abuse cases at issue in this prosecution.

Another lingering issue is Lynn’s relationship with the Catholic Church hierarchy above him.  Lynn’s defense attorney has confirmed that blame for the Archdiocese's failure to act on abuse allegations should be placed above him, not least upon Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who passed away earlier this year, but nonetheless provided ten separate statements on the record before the grand jury.  Thus, one of the key recurring issues in this case will be the extent to which Lynn can bring in evidence of the Catholic Church and the Archdiocese’s handling of these cases apart from his own involvement.  So far, the Archdiocese has prevailed in its efforts to keep out of the case certain legal memoranda that were prepared by its attorneys after Lynn spoke with them, but has not been able to keep out of the case a memo that apparently shows Cardinal Bevilacqua ordered the destruction of a list of 35 priests accused of molesting children. Lynn tried, unsuccessfully, to use that memo to have the judge dismiss all charges against him.

In terms of the law of the case, we will likely see many objections from Lynn's lawyer and from the Archdiocese's lawyers revolving around the wider role of the church beyond Monsignor Lynn in covering up and failing to properly report child abuse.  On many issues, Lynn, the District Attorney, and the Archdiocese will play musical chairs, with two uniting against one.  It is no stretch to predict that, with each day’s testimony, this issue will come up again and again, resulting in hundreds, possibly thousands, of evidentiary rulings that could serve as a basis for an appeal if Lynn is convicted.

1 comment

  1. Unbelievable. For an organization that has always been obsessively concerned with their image, keeping secrets, covering up and not exposing their “dirty laundry”, this is just hard to believe.

    I believe the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is “stuck”, with no way out regarding all of these sordid, evil, amoral, criminal revelations that will play out day after day down there at the Criminal Justice Center. If the past archdiocesan management style were in place, Chaput and his leaders would be in a hurry to close this matter as soon as possible, i.e., some kind of plea deal involving Lynn, Brennan, et al. However, and this is the key element, to do so would most certainly risk and/or expose similarly situated Vicars of Clergy around the country who may just face similar criminal prosecution for their conduct, or more specifically, their omissions or failing to act to protect children.

    I think it’s time for Archbishop Chaput to bring in and bring on some of the heavyweight legal help he had out there in Denver. I think a call to Martin Nussbaum is in order. Here’s a man who has gove all over the country to support and defend the Catholic Church in a variety of forums regarding their (mis)management of clergy abuse allegations, reporting and responsibilites. Mr. Nussbaum, the City of Brotherly Love will certainly welcome you and your associates with open arms.


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