The verdict in Philadelphia

by Michael Sean Winters

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The jury in the trial of Msgr. William Lynn took 13 days to reach its verdict, and the verdict was clear: Those charged with oversight of clergy and who did not use that charge to protect children will be found guilty of criminal behavior -- in this case, child endangerment.

We know something about what took the jury so long. The jurors had sent the judge a note saying they had reached a verdict on one count but were deadlocked on the others. In the end, they concluded they could not break their deadlock regarding Fr. James Brennan, who was charged with molestation, and consequently, they could not convict Lynn on the charge of child endangerment regarding Brennan’s assignments. But they did convict Lynn on the charge of child endangerment as regards his actions towards Fr. Edward Avery, who had previously pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and sexual assault. In other words, once the underlying crime was proven, the jury had little doubt as to the guilt of Msgr. Lynn, who served as the secretary for the clergy in Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004.

“This trial was not about a specific religion. It was about evil men who did evil things to children they should have protected but people were more concerned about the institution than about those victims or future victims,” Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said after the verdict. Williams is, by all accounts, a loyal Catholic.

The verdict in Pennsylvania was immediately overshadowed by the verdict in Bellafonte, rendered later that night, that found former Penn State football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky guilty on 45 of 48 charges in his sex abuse trial. The Lynn verdict was pushed to page A3 in the next morning’s Washington Post while Sandusky was above the fold on Page 1. But all those who need to hear the verdict in Philadelphia heard it. There is not a chancery official in the land who can think that covering up for an abuser will protect the institution. There is not a chancery official in the land who can think that what was done was right.

Indeed, the tragic irony is that it was precisely those like Lynn, who thought they were trying to protect the institution, who have inflicted the greatest harm on the institution. They can claim they were only doing what the psychologists advised them to do, but that only goes so far. Just as confessors can require penitents to make restitution for the ill-gotten gains of their crimes, chancery officials should have seen that the church had to make restitution to the victims for the crimes perpetrated by the clergy, not just cover it up. But you can never restore innocence to a child who has been raped. This made the obligation, the moral obligation, to protect future victims all the more urgent. The fact that Msgr. Lynn failed to see that urgency and act upon it will send him to jail for up to seven years.

We have heard a lot about St. Thomas More these past few weeks. When I heard the verdict in Philadelphia, another saint came to mind: St. Thomas Becket. He challenged the king over clerical privilege: specifically, the right of the clergy to be tried exclusively in ecclesiastical courts. In Becket’s day, no one challenged this privilege at its core: Clergy were different from laity in law and in fact. But what King Henry challenged was the cases of clergy who committed egregious crimes, such as murder, and the king wanted such men tried in civil courts. Child rape is soul murder. Msgr. Lynn and others acted as if Becket had won, and as if his victory had been maintained over the centuries, that clergy were immune from the long arm of civilian prosecution. The verdict in Philadelphia indicates as nothing else could that the clergy will be hauled into civilian court and sent to civilian prisons because the church failed to police its own.

No one “won” in court on Friday. This whole tragedy could have been avoided if members of the hierarchy and those they appointed to positions of authority had acted with even a modicum of concern for the child victims of these crimes. In 2002, I began an essay at The New Republic with these words: “The crisis in the Catholic Church started as a sex scandal the way Watergate started as a burglary: What followed has become the real scandal. We all know that the sexual abuse of minors is horrific; but somehow the bishops did not react with horror. That is what truly shocks.”

We Catholics were shocked in 2002, but we are not anymore. The horror remains, however.

In the Exsultet, sung at the start of the Easter Vigil, we hear: O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam that won for us so great a Savior. There is nothing happy and nothing necessary about the sin of child rape. There is nothing happy and nothing necessary about the cover-up. In his address to the Dublin Eucharistic Congress, Pope Benedict XVI spoke of the “mystery” of the sin of child abuse. Yes, in some sense, all sin is a mystery and those who abuse children are possessed by an evil that is truly mysterious. But there is no mystery about the cover-up. There were structures in place and a culture of clerical unaccountability that created the cover-up. We can change the structures and seek to change the culture. Reforms that allow greater transparency and accountability are required. But reform is not enough: Renewal is needed.

The Savior is still great, still rich in mercy to those who truly repent. The church must endure a long Lent. The number of cases of child abuse has declined, to be sure. But the full reckoning is not over. The trial of Bishop Finn in Kansas City, Mo., this September will be another instance when, to paraphrase Lincoln, the drops of blood drawn by the lash of sin must yet be paid by drops of blood drawn by the sword -- in this case, the sword of civil prosecution. The Lord has entrusted His church to sinful man because there are none but sinners. Only by remaining ever mindful of our own sins, of the sins committed in the name of the church, can we ever approach the throne of grace. Penance is always the source of renewal for the Christian faithful and for the Christian church, the only source of renewal. The bishops of the United States must continue, and continue for a long time, to show themselves repentant and to lead the entire people of God in penance, not least because the sin of child abuse, a sin that cried out to heaven for justice, did not find justice in the chancery offices in Philadelphia but in the offices of the district attorney.

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