PHILADELPHIA -- For the first time in the nation's church abuse scandal, a high-ranking Roman Catholic official has been charged with a crime for allegedly failing to protect youngsters from child-molesting priests.
The case was brought by Philadelphia's aggressive district attorney, himself a Catholic. "I love my church, but I detest the criminal behavior of priests who abuse or allow the abuse of children," he says.
Two Roman Catholic priests, a former priest and a Catholic school teacher were charged Thursday with raping young boys, while the former church official was accused of transferring problem priests to new parishes without warning anyone of prior sex-abuse complaints.
The charges stemmed from a two-year grand jury investigation into priest abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the second such inquiry in the city.
In the rare, if not unprecedented, move, the grand jury charged Monsignor William Lynn with endangering children in his role as secretary for clergy under former Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.
Lynn, 60, had a duty to protect children in the five-county archdiocese and refer priests with known sexual problems for rehabilitation or prosecution, District Attorney Seth Williams said in announcing the charges.
"He instead lied to parishioners and went out of his way to reassign priests without telling pastors or principals that they were pedophiles," Williams said.
Lynn's defense lawyer said the two endangerment counts should not apply because Lynn did not have any children under his care.
"We certainly don't concede for a moment that he knew he was putting children at risk," lawyer Tom Bergstrom told The Associated Press.
While American dioceses have paid hundreds of millions of dollars to abuse victims to settle civil lawsuits in recent years, criminal charges in clergy sex abuse cases have been rare.
People who were molested as children often wait for decades before gaining the courage to come forward -- usually long after the statute of limitation for criminal charges has run out. A small number of accused clergy have been prosecuted and convicted since 2002, when the clergy sex abuse crisis erupted in the Archdiocese of Boston. However, no bishop or church administrator has been taken to trial over their failures to protect children from accused priests.
Lynn featured prominently in a scathing 2005 grand jury report that found 63 priests in the Philadelphia archdiocese had been credibly accused of child sexual assault over several decades while local church officials turned a blind eye. Frustrated prosecutors then concluded, though, that they could not file any criminal charges because the statute of limitations on the crimes had expired.
Pennsylvania has since revised laws to give child sex-assault victims more time to report abuse, while the archdiocese under Cardinal Justin Rigali has pledged to refer credible complaints to law enforcement.
The current case, referred by the archdiocese, involves two victims, one of them a boy who was allegedly abused by two priests and his sixth-grade teacher at St. Jerome Parish, starting when he was a 10-year-old altar boy in 1998.
The Rev. Charles Engelhardt, now 64, and the Rev. Edward Avery, now 68, both raped the boy in the church sacristy after Mass, the report charged. Engelhardt also allegedly gave the boy wine and showed him pornography. He later told Avery about the encounter, prompting Avery to demand that the boy perform a striptease act after Mass, followed by oral and anal sex, the report said.
Bernard Shero, now 48, his sixth-grade teacher the next year, raped him during a ride home from school, then made him walk home, the report said.
The victim, later plagued like many abuse victims by depression and substance abuse, reported the attacks years later.
Avery had been on the church's radar since at least 1992. That's when a 29-year-old medical student told the archdiocese that Avery, who frequently moonlighted as a disc jockey at city nightclubs, had abused him in the 1970s and 1980s.
Avery was sent to six months of sex-offender treatment, although his parish was told the leave was for unspecified "health" reasons, the report said. Despite the center's recommendation that he be kept away from adolescents or other vulnerable minors afterward, Lynn recommended him for a position at a parish with an adjacent elementary school, authorities said.
Bevilacqua agreed, but sent him instead to a different parish, St. Jerome.
Rigali succeeded Bevilacqua in 2003 and soon afterward deemed the medical student's abuse claims credible. He removed Avery from his priestly duties that December.
"That was five years too late to protect Billy (a pseudonym for the altar boy) -- and who knows how many children," the report said.
According to the report, Bevilacqua could not be charged because there was no evidence linking him to the alleged cover-up of the assaults against these two victims. His lawyer told investigators the 87-year-old retired prelate suffers from cancer and dementia.
While investigating Engelhardt, authorities came to charge his predecessor at St. Jerome, the Rev. James J. Brennan, with raping a 14-year-old boy. The alleged abuse occurred during a leave of absence Brennan requested in 1996 to deal with what he called his own childhood sexual abuse, the report said.
The victim, a member of St. Andrew Church in the Philadelphia suburb of Newtown, later attempted suicide, the report said.
Lynn and other church officials had also been aware that Brennan, now 47, had a prior history of impropriety with minors, the report said.
And, even today, 37 accused priests in the archdiocese work in assignments that put them near children while complaints are investigated or, in some cases, deemed not credible, the grand jury found.
"We would have assumed, by the year 2011, after all the revelations both here and around the world, that the church would not risk its youth by leaving them in the presence of priests subjected to substantial evidence of abuse. That is not the case," the report said.
Lynn, now assigned to a parish in suburban Downingtown, and the four others were surrendering Thursday to await arraignment. A defense lawyer for Brennan did not immediately return a message; it wasn't immediately clear whether the others had lawyers.
Rigali vowed to take the grand jury report and its calls for further reforms seriously. He said in a statement Thursday night that there are "no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them."
A lay Catholic group called BishopAccountability.org that tracks data related to the priest abuse problem praised Williams' decision to pursue church leaders.
"To date, not one bishop or church official has spent a single day in jail for enabling crimes against children," the group said in a statement.
"Victims of sexual abuse by clergy may find this news deeply painful. Our thoughts and prayers are with them. It is in this spirit that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is cooperating fully with the civil authorities in this and all related matters," Rigali said in a statement.
The Diocese of Manchester, N.H., averted criminal charges in 2002 by admitting it had harmed children when church officials transferred accused priests among parishes, and agreed to allow state prosecutors to audit the diocese's child protection policies.
The Archdiocese of Cincinnati pleaded no contest in 2003 to charges of failing to tell authorities about sex abuse claims against priests, paid a fine and created a fund for victims.
Also in 2003, Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien admitted he sheltered abusive priests in a deal that carried immunity from indictment for obstruction of justice. He agreed to institute reforms and cede some authority to other church officials.
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