A Tale of Two Child Sex Abuse Trials Involving Two Iconic Pennsylvania Institutions: Penn State and the Philadelphia Roman Catholic Archdiocese

Posted in: Criminal Law

Two iconic Pennsylvania institutions—Penn State and the Philadelphia Roman Catholic Archdiocese—are facing public trials, in close succession, regarding child sex abuse, and each trial is slashing away at the unquestioned reverence that both had enjoyed for so long.  Penn State fans and Catholics are experiencing divisive betrayal, anger, and confusion as they learn still more about exactly how grievously their beloved institutions have shortchanged children.

The Trial of Monsignor William Lynn

For three months, Philadelphia prosecutors have introduced a mountain of evidence to establish that Msgr. William Lynn callously and deliberately endangered children by letting predator priests continue in their ministry.  The only defense Lynn’s attorneys seem to have –the claim that he was just following orders—seemed like diversionary nitpicking, rather than a strike at the prosecution evidence.  He is charged with conspiracy with other Archdiocesan officials, and with the endangerment of children.

Also being tried, at the same time, is Fr. James Brennan, who is accused of attempted rape and the endangerment of children.  There were other defendants, but one of them—defrocked priest, Edward Avery—pled guilty right before the trial started, and two others will be facing trial in the Fall.

Much of the trial evidence was drawn from two remarkable grand jury reports on child sex abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese—one from 2005, the other from last year. The former report, which was a result of grand jury investigations during the tenure of District Attorney Lynne Abraham, laid exhaustive groundwork establishing the clergy sex abuse cover-up, in over 450 pages.  Despite the exemplary investigation, though, no victims were able to press charges, because the statutes of limitations had expired.  The 2011 Grand Jury Report, however, built on the 2005 Report, and successfully identified victims whose claims fell within the statute of limitations. And that Report opened the door for the current Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, to file charges and proceed to trial.

The 2005 Report, therefore, was essential in creating the foundation for the trial and thus potentially sending the first member of the Catholic hierarchy to prison for covering up child sex abuse.

Philadelphia and Its Prosecutors Are to Be Lauded for Enabling the Grand Jury Reports and Prosecutions, Which Once Would Have Been Unthinkable

At one time, not so long ago, it was impossible to imagine Philadelphia, of all cities, publicly chastising the Catholic Church’s hierarchy.  Philadelphia is a city of many Catholics, a city where even non-Catholics will signal where they live by mentioning the closest parish.  The sturdy and comforting fabric of trust in the hierarchy and the priests is now torn, with many former parishioners no longer attending services or giving, and with a number of parish schools necessarily closing.  But many Catholics understandably still wanted to believe—against all of the evidence—that this was all in the past.  Most never read the grand jury reports, other than the snippets that were printed in the newspapers, despite the full reports’ availability on the District Attorney Office’s website.

But don’t forget, no one would have predicted the near-demise of the Catholic Church in Ireland, either.  In both cases, these Catholic institutions have brought on themselves public shame for the mortal sins of making children available to child predators.

The Philadelphia Clergy Child Sex Abuse Trial:  Its Current Status

This saga has been an opportunity to educate the public.  The Philadelphia clergy child sex abuse trial, spanning nearly three months, meant that one media story after another was served up to the public in a more comprehensible and digestible form than the 450+ and 120+ page grand jury reports had provided.  These stories, drawn largely from the grand jury reports, educated the public about the true facts regarding the Philadelphia Archdiocese—where many men in the hierarchy knew that some of their priests were serial pedophiles and yet did nothing to protect children—and thus has done the public a service.

If nothing else comes of the trial, the lessons it teaches on how child abuse happens, and how it is perpetuated in institutions, can alone help protect children in the future.

Now, the jury is considering the mountain of evidence, in the light of the charges against two defendants, and seemingly doing so carefully and methodically.  The jury’s  schedule has been light, with days starting between 9:30 and 10am, lunches outside the building, and court days ending at 4pm or earlier.  Thus, the fact that the jury has been in deliberations for five days does not indicate that they are necessarily divided about the case. Simply going through the evidence is extremely time-consuming.

The jury will be back to its deliberations on Monday, the same day that former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky’s child molestation trial is scheduled to begin.

The Trial of Alleged Multiple Child Sex Abuser Jerry Sandusky, Which Will Begin Next Week

While the Philadelphia jury ponders the evidence regarding the priests of the city’s diocese, the trial of accused serial child predator and Penn State defensive coach Jerry Sandusky will start on Monday.  Sandusky’s lawyer, Joseph Amendola, has tried every argument in the book in an attempt to delay the trial, but he has failed to do so.  Thus, while one of Pennsylvania’s most holy institutions is still taking its lumps in Philadelphia, the beloved Penn State will have its image tarnished in the same way—through daily news reports of yet more evidence of abuse within a revered institution that utterly failed to live up to its long-held, much-cherished reputation for character and goodness.

This trial will focus on the 52 charges of child sex abuse against Sandusky.  It relies on yet another grand jury report, though one that is so brief that many who are interested in the trial may read it in full.  Even before the trial begins, however, it’s clear that Sandusky has little, if any, chance of an acquittal.  Indeed, new evidence further seals Sandusky’s fate: He allegedly sent a love letter to one of the victims with, we are told, a lewd title and a love story between a man and a boy.  That description makes one cringe even without reading the letter, and I would imagine that most of the trial will similarly make observers, media, and even jurors cringe as well.  The Sandusky trial will be much shorter in length than the Catholic Diocese trial in Philadelphia was, and the Sandusky trial will go to the jury not that long after the Philadelphia jury received its charge.

No other city prosecutors have so thoroughly investigated a Catholic diocese in the United States, as former D.A. Lynne Abraham, and D.A. Seth Williams have done.

No state has two instances of institutional cover-up and serial pedophilia within its borders as Pennsylvania now does.  With all of its knowledge gleaned from these investigations and these trials, the State of Pennsylvania could, if it so chose, become a leader in the movement for the legal reforms that are needed to protect children from sex abuse, by examining what went so wrong in both institutions, to lead to the sexual abuse of so many children.  Let us hope that the State of Pennsylvania finally takes up the gauntlet and enacts laws that truly protect children.