TOPICS > Politics

Church Official Convicted for Handling of Sexual Abuse Claims

June 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
A Philadelphia priest was jailed Friday for how he handled sexual abuse claims, marking the first U.S. church official to be convicted of such a crime. Jeffrey Brown speaks with Barbara Blaine of Those Abused by Priests, and Thomas Plante of Santa Clara University.

JEFFREY BROWN: A jury convicted a U.S. church official for the first time for the handling and cover-up of sexual abuse claims.

Sixty-one-year-old Monsignor William Lynn of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was found guilty of child endangerment. Prosecutors said he recommended reassigning priests accused of abuse to unsuspecting parishes when he served as secretary of the clergy from 1992 to 2004. The jury acquitted him on one count of conspiracy and another of endangerment. He could face up to seven years in prison.

The jury could not agree on a verdict for his co-defendant, Rev. James Brennan. He was accused of sexually abusing a 14-year-old boy in 1996.

After the verdict, district attorney Seth Williams had this to say.

SETH WILLIAMS, Philadelphia district attorney: What happened here was unspeakable. People who knew that these were predators were much more concerned with the institution than the victims of sexual assault. They failed to recognize that the church is its people.

The most important thing, I think, is that this monumental case in many ways will change the way business is done in many institutions, be they religious institutions, educational institutions, day camps, whatever, where people will not protect predators any longer.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look at this case and its wider implications with Barbara Blaine, founder and president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests. And Thomas Plante, he served the past four years on the National Review Board, which was created by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to prevent child sexual abuse by clergy members. He’s a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University.

And we invited officials from both the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Conference of Catholic Bishops. They declined to join us.

Barbara Blaine, I will start with you.

What do you see as the significance of this conviction?

BARBARA BLAINE, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests: Well, there’s a great deal of relief and a feeling of vindication for victims in this case. And this — it shows that these heinous crimes, when covering up and enabling priest predators, must be stopped.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Thomas Plante, what do you take from this?

THOMAS PLANTE, Santa Clara University: Well, it’s a major case, of course. We have heard about the Philadelphia story for many, many months now.

And this is the first time, it appears, that someone other than a clergy offender, but rather a church official, has been convicted for a crime. But we have to be mindful that this is a monsignor. He’s not a bishop. There would be a very big difference between the two.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, explain, Mr. Plante? Why was it important to have a conviction of someone on the enabling or the covering-up part of this?

THOMAS PLANTE: Well, I think part of the — it depends on your perspective, whether — from the victim perspective vs. the rank and file Catholic perspective or so forth.

But having someone like the monsignor be convicted, it’s sort of like the assistant manager of the Starbucks, not the manager of the Starbucks, something like that. So, in other words, we often hear that there hasn’t been adequate accountability over the many years in terms of the church, in terms of leadership and things of that nature.

And this is the first case, it appears, where someone who is a decision-maker, even though he’s not the bishop, is held accountable for decisions that he made.

JEFFREY BROWN: Barbara Blaine, what would you add to that, on the question of this breaking a barrier in terms of responsibility?

BARBARA BLAINE: Well, as well he should, Monsignor Lynn, being put in jail and convicted today.

These cover-ups and enabling the predator priests go on all across the United States in every diocese. And I think that it would be wrong to think that Philadelphia is an anomaly. I believe that what happened in Philadelphia is the norm.

And I think it’s time that church officials should be held accountable for enabling our — the predators who preyed on us when we were children. The vast majority of us who were victimized wouldn’t have been had the church officials done the right thing.

And I hope that this will send a strong message in — to every diocese that they need to stop covering up and enabling the predators.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ms. Blaine, what do you expect? Do you think that this — more cases would be brought because of what happened in Philadelphia, because of this case?

BARBARA BLAINE: Well, I think that this case will have — offers hope to many victims who have not yet come forward that, if they were to do so, there might be something good that could come from it. So I’m trusting and hoping more victims will speak up.

And I also hope that more prosecutors now will look into their laws of their states and jurisdictions, and then look at the behaviors of the top-ranking church officials in their dioceses and investigate whether there should be indictments in their jurisdictions as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Plante, what do you think about that? What are the limitations of going to other places after Philadelphia? There are statute of limitations in many of these cases, I understand, but are there other limitations that might prevent other cases?

THOMAS PLANTE: No, it’s a great question.

Now, I have to remind you that I’m a psychologist, not an attorney. And so I have to look at this from a particular perspective that’s not based on legal precedent and legal issues and so forth.

But I think what’s critical here, if we nuance this a little bit further, is that Monsignor Lynn was in charge, as you said in your introduction, between the early 1990s and 2004. And what’s critical here is what decisions were made after 2002, after the Dallas charter put forth by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops and after The Boston Globe investigative report on Father Geoghan and Cardinal Law in Boston.

And so decisions that were made way in the past, we have to be mindful of what was the best practices, what was the best clinical science at the time, what kind of consultation was given. Certainly, any decision that was made post-2002 is especially problematic and especially egregious, because we had policies and procedures in place to handle these cases much, much better.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, on that subject, Mr. Plante, just following up, is it your sense generally that practices, that awareness, that all the — things really have changed?

THOMAS PLANTE: Oh, absolutely.

I mean, since 2002 in particular, the 10 years during this time, there’s a variety of things that are very, very different. I have been involved with this area for 25 years, and to see what has been done in the last 10 years is really quite a remarkable change.

We have the Dallas charter. Again, this is the policies and procedures put forth by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops for child protection. We have zero tolerance for abuse. We have safe environment training for all church workers, parents, kids and so forth, audits of parishes throughout the United States.

So a lot has been done that is very positive and very good. However, there’s more that still needs to be done. And I think any reasonable person would say that any institution that has children with unsupervised contact with adults has to be mindful of a variety of these policies and procedures — these kinds of policies and procedures in order to keep kids safe. And so. . .

BARBARA BLAINE: And let’s. . .



A brief — yes, go ahead, a brief last word from you, Ms. Blaine.

BARBARA BLAINE: Just last year, the same grand jury that indicted Monsignor Lynn found 37 accused predator priests working in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

And, currently, right now, there is a bishop under indictment in Kansas City who has — for endangering children, just like Monsignor Lynn. And he has not stepped down. He’s been able to maintain his position.

And I think that if there were investigations like this in other jurisdictions, we may find the same type of behaviors there. I think it’s wrong to think that this is a problem of the — in history, because I believe it’s ongoing today.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will leave it there.

Barbara Blaine and Thomas Plante, thank you both very much.