The first Catholic priest in the United States to be charged with covering up his subordinates' sexual abuse of children arrived in court Monday for a landmark trial in Philadelphia.
Prosecutors are targeting Monsignor William Lynn for allegedly shuffling two priests suspected of child abuse to other positions around the Philadelphia, thereby enabling the crimes to continue.
The role of such a senior official, whose co-defendant Reverend James Brennan is accused of sexually abusing boys in the 1990's, makes the trial the first of its kind in the United States.
In a surprise pretrial twist Thursday, the other co-defendant, defrocked priest Edward Avery, pleaded guilty to his own sex crimes, thereby avoiding trial. He was immediately sentenced to between two-and-a-half and five years in prison.
It was not immediately clear how Lynn's lawyers would deal with this setback, since they have said they planned to challenge the credibility of the sex abuse allegations.
The accusations against the three men read like many other church sex abuse scandals. But with the trial attracting heavy media attention, the sordid details of the allegations will be in burning focus.
With a high-up official in the dock for allegedly shielding perpetrators of sex abuse, the case threatens to widen the legal onslaught over a scandal that has already bled the Catholic Church of credibility and money.
"If these ranks of middle managers from which the bishops are drawn, if this really starts to be scrutinized, the people who have become bishops are going to be caught in the web," Terry McKiernan, from the website bishop-accountability.org, which tracks reported abuses, told AFP.
"That's a mess that the church in the US does not want opened."
The case as a whole can be dated back to 1992, when a former parishioner accused Avery of molesting him in the 1970's or 1980's.
The allegations were deemed serious enough that Avery was sent to a facility specializing in rehabilitation of sex offender priests.
As secretary for the clergy between 1992 and 2004, Lynn was responsible for investigating of reports of abuse. Yet he never stopped Avery.
When Avery had completed his program, Lynn assigned him to a parish with a school, despite the fact that Avery's therapist warned against putting him around children.
At that parish, Avery allegedly encountered a 10 year-old altar boy referred to in court documents as "Bill," and abused him.
In another incident described in court documents, Brennan allegedly raped a 14 year-old boy during a sleepover at Brennan's apartment in 1996.
Even after that boy's parents reported the rape to the archdiocese, Lynn did not take action beyond transferring Brennan within the Philadelphia region.
Defense lawyers are casting doubt on the credibility of two alleged victims who have long histories of drug abuse and also are looking to sue the archdiocese for millions of dollars in a civil suit.
"He has the pecuniary interest plus the motive to lay blame for his drug abuse," Avery's defense attorney, Michael Wallace, said of one of the accusers at a pre-trial hearing Wednesday.
Source: AFP American Edition