PHILADELPHIA -- The Archdiocese of Philadelphia protected sexual predators in its ranks for more than 70 years, putting the church's reputation over the safety of children, a prosecutor said Monday at the start of a landmark priest abuse case that's shaken the Roman Catholic establishment.
The church kept secret files dating back to 1948 that show a long-standing conspiracy to doubt sex abuse victims, protect priests and avoid scandal, Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Coelho said in opening statements.
Coelho called the case "a battle between right and wrong within the archdiocese and the office of secretary for clergy."
She outlined the decades-old sexual abuse complaints found buried in secret archives to build a case against Monsignor William Lynn, who supervised priests as secretary for clergy from 1992 through 2004. Lynn is the first U.S. church official charged for his administrative role in the sex abuse crisis.
He is on trial with the Rev. James Brennan, who is charged with the attempted rape of a 14-year-old boy in 1996. Both men entered not guilty pleas before the jury Monday.
Co-defendant Edward Avery, a defrocked priest, entered a surprise guilty plea Thursday to a sexual assault charge and will serve 2½ to five years in prison. Avery also acknowledged that the archdiocese kept him in parish work despite knowing of an earlier complaint lodged against him, a point that could bolster the conspiracy charge against Lynn.
Coelho said the archdiocese did little or nothing about sex abuse complaints until the church's sex abuse scandal exploded in Boston in 2002.
"Victims are met with skepticism and priests are believed ... at all costs," Coelho said, speaking softly to the jury.
The defense is expected to begin its opening statements Monday afternoon.
Attorneys for Lynn and Brennan plan to attack the credibility of the priests' troubled adult accusers, though that strategy took a hit last week when Avery pleaded guilty, confirming one accuser's account of a brutal 1999 sexual assault inside a church sacristy. All three priests were to be tried together before Avery admitted that he abused a 10-year-old altar boy.
Prosecutors say the 61-year-old Lynn transferred priests to new parishes when a problem arose or told parishioners that their priest was taking a "health leave" when he was going for therapy or to a "safe" assignment at an old-age home. Before long, problem priests were back in parish work, with unsupervised access to children.
"By ignoring warning signs or red flags, Fr. Lynn kept Brennan and Avery in ministry, where they were able to hurt children," Coelho said.
Lynn remains the focal point of the trial. He could get up to 28 years in prison if convicted of two counts each of conspiracy and child endangerment.
He has argued that he prepared a list of 37 accused priests in 1994 and sent it up the chain to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua only to have Bevilacqua have it shredded. The cardinal died this year, but his videotaped deposition could be played at trial.
The trial will be closely followed by Catholics across the country, including some who say their lives were destroyed.
Philadelphia prosecutors blasted Bevilacqua, Lynn and other church officials for hiding scores of complaints that streamed into the archdiocese over several decades. Prosecutors detailed their findings in a 2005 grand jury report but said they couldn't charge anyone because the statute of limitations had expired.
But last year, they filed a second grand jury report based on recent complaints filed within newly expanded time limits.
Avery's accuser said he was passed around by two priests and his Catholic schoolteacher at St. Jerome's Parish.
"When Mass was ended, Fr. (Edward) Avery took the fifth-grader into the sacristy, turned on the music, and ordered him to perform a 'striptease' for him. ... When they were both naked, the priest had the boy sit on his lap and kissed his neck and back, while saying to him that God loved him," the report alleges, adding that the kissing was followed by oral sex and penetration.
Defense lawyers plan to argue that the accusers are out for money or hope to explain away their troubled lives. Both accusers have criminal records and a history of drug addiction.