the dragnet draws tighter

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 25, 2011

Last week the Philadelphia archdiocese removed a prominent priest from ministry because...

Wait! It's not what you think!

During the past decade hundreds of American priests have been suspended because of accusations that they molested children. But Msgr. William Lynn faces no such charges. His suspension is an important new development in the Church's response to the sex-abuse scandal.

Msgr. Lynn was placed on administrative leave after a Pennsylvania grand jury report accused him of deliberately protecting abusive priests, helping them to escape both criminal prosecution and ecclesiastical discipline. He has not been accused of harming children himself, yet he has been indicted on two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. 

So far, the case might seem unremarkable. If a priest was accused of a crime that had nothing at all to do with the sex-abuse scandal-- if he was charged with bank robbery, say-- the archdiocese would probably have taken the same action.  By removing him from his parish assignment, the archdiocese tacitly admitted that the criminal charges against Msgr. Lynn are serious matters, and it is not appropriate for a priest who labors under such a heavy cloud of suspicion to continue work as a pastor. 

But the case is more complicated than that. The grand jury that indicted Msgr. Lynn also said clearly, in its devastating report, that it was convinced he had been carrying out policies that were approved by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. Although the grand jury could not find adequate evidence to support indictment of the retired Archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Bevilacqua is now living under a cloud as well.  

Now here's why this case is important: Msgr. Lynn is the only priest facing indictment on the basis of the Philadelphia grand-jury report. But he is not alone. The report was, in a very real sense, an indictment of the entire archdiocesan administration. And if truth be told, the same indictment could be made against dozens of other American dioceses and their leaders.

During the annus horribilis of 2002, as the details of the sex-abuse crisis emerged in a series of explosive headlines, we learned to our dismay that in one diocese after another, bishops had done what Msgr. Lynn now stands accused of doing: ignoring warnings of abuse, covering up the evidence, and helping the perpetrators to escape detection by switching their parish assignments-- thus presenting them with a fresh set of potential victims. After the US bishops approved the Dallas Charter, the accused priests were at last removed from ministry. But the clerical bureaucrats who had protected them remained in place. The Catholic faithful were assured that new policies were in place to prevent abuse. But as often as not, those policies were being enforced by the same clerics who had ignored proper procedures in the past. 

The Dallas Charter addressed one dimension of the scandal: the misconduct of individual priests. It did not address the larger institutional problem: the inexcusable misconduct of the bishops who should have been supervising and disciplining those priests. Abundant evidence has emerged to show the bishops purposefully covered up evidence of criminal activity. Indeed, at least two bishops have signed legal agreements admitting the existence of evidence sufficient to warrant criminal prosecution. Yet to date, more than a decade after the scandal hit the headlines, no American bishop has been indicted for his role in the cover-up. Only one prelate-- Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law-- has been forced to step down because of his mishandling of the scandal. Dozens of other bishops, equally tarred by the public record of their misdeeds, remain in office still, ignoring the dark clouds that circle over their heads. 

Years ago I told friends that I thought the American bishops would finally begin to grasp the gravity of this scandal when one of their own colleagues was placed behind bars-- not for any personal misdeeds, but for his efforts to conceal the criminal conduct of others. That day may never come. But with the indictment of Msgr. Lynn-- a priest who was working for the archbishop, and presumed to be carrying out the archbishop's orders-- the dragnet has tightened. 

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 18 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Flavian - Jul. 17, 2017 3:46 PM ET USA

    Father Spadaro and Pastor Figueroa write as if they are experts on the Evangelical-Catholic scene in the United States. Incredibly, they do not mention the Plymouth Brethren, John Nelson Darby, or C.I. Scofield. Nor do they mention the tremendous role Darby and Scofield played in propagating premillenial dispensation theology and pre-tribulation rapture theology.

  • Posted by: stellamaris - Jul. 17, 2017 11:32 AM ET USA

    Their rhetoric of history as a power struggle is Marxist. Their tactics are communist. But, unbeknownst to them, there is no power struggle--God wins

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Jul. 15, 2017 4:28 PM ET USA

    Someone somewhere sometime might write an article based on facts and experience with the American political culture and the current reality of the Catholic Church in the United States, but this is not it. Any arguments or conclusions based on this article's alarming level of ignorance are utterly null and void.

  • Posted by: - Jul. 15, 2017 1:58 PM ET USA

    Both Pius X & Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have warned against modernism and I'm on their side. Don't those folks understand what the conservatives have been dealing with since Vatican II which was hijacked in some ways by the Liberals .

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Jul. 14, 2017 8:32 PM ET USA

    I think the article is a typical liberal smear campaign. When a liberal cannot win an argument using the facts and truth they resort to name calling and character attacks. This article simply points out that the Pope and his advisors are liberals. Pray for the Church.

  • Posted by: jalsardl5053 - Jul. 14, 2017 4:52 PM ET USA

    Pope Francis is subtly but surely undermining Pope John Paul II and his minions are not so subtly but just surely undermining President Regan. Thus, the two key figures in one of history's golden moments are to be buried by this papal administration. History will haunt them... big time.

  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 14, 2017 4:02 PM ET USA

    I don't think this was a random "ignorant, intemperate Vatican assault on American conservatism." It looks to me a good old-fashioned "wagging of the dog" after the homosexual orgy scandal in the heart of the Vatican. Including Voris in their criticism actually, and ironically, gives it away. The Good Lord has a sense of humor giving the world Pope Francis and President Trump.

  • Posted by: danflaherty210701793 - Jul. 14, 2017 12:10 PM ET USA

    The Civilta article was unfortunate, because it initially raised a valid question--has Catholic culture in America been overly influenced by right-wing Protestantism? But the article descends into what Phil rightly calls "intemperance." It examines none of the root causes of the Catholic-Evangelical alliance (the secular leftist assault on cultural norms) and the jabs at Church Militant were dumb--ironically the equivalent of Trump picking a Twitter fight with someone he should be above.

  • Posted by: randal.agostini8563 - Jul. 14, 2017 7:13 AM ET USA

    This is disappointing if it begins to alienate Christians in America at a time when we should be acting with one voice to fight against anti religion movements. All people suffer from the sin of "self," but America still brings more people to recognize that there is a God.

  • Posted by: jackbene3651 - Jul. 13, 2017 11:20 PM ET USA

    So I guess we can expect the Pope to be appointing personnel from the National Catholic Reporter and CNN to edit Civilta Catholica and the Obervatore Romano.

  • Posted by: padrebill - Jul. 13, 2017 11:17 PM ET USA

    Phil, thank you for so rightly summarizing the article. It is not only "conservative" Catholics they paint badly but your everyday-struggling-to-be-a-saint and do-some-good-in the-world types. You know: Vatican II types. This is so outrageous I don't even know what to say anymore. And, to tell the truth, in the context of so much in the upper levels of the Church these days it is scary. Lord, have mercy!

  • Posted by: fwhermann3492 - Jul. 13, 2017 11:07 PM ET USA

    "The essay is written from the perspective of people who draw their information about America from left-wing journals rather than from practical experience."--That pretty much sums it up. I doubt these authors have even spent time in the United States, much less the "deep South" that they rant against. I think Shrink has a good point, too: Michael Voris's remarks have apparently gotten a little too close to home for Spadaro. At any rate, great article, Phil.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jul. 13, 2017 9:55 PM ET USA

    "It is not unreasonable, then, to assume that this essay reflects the Pope’s own thinking. That is frightening." Frightening though it may be, it is what we have come to expect from this pontificate. Day by day it becomes more difficult to take Francis seriously. Some want him to just go away. But it seems he will be around for how many more years? 10? 20? 30? To tolerate the former U.S. president was tantamount to tolerating a proximate threat to one's existence. Here to the faith of many.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 13, 2017 7:34 PM ET USA

    This is the reality that we face. It is not uncharitable to use words like intemperate and frightening. Neither is it untruthful. What's been happening for 50 years? Are these isolated tactical losses? Is secularism to blame? Is the assault an external one? Why is the Church in 2017 the Church in 2017? We can celebrate the Magisterium and Infallibility all we want. But at the end of the day, what Catholics who care are saying more loudly with each passing day is "Say it isn't so."

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Jul. 13, 2017 6:39 PM ET USA

    The attacks are ignorant, but they are consistent. Pray daily and fervently for divine intervention, because that is the only thing that can save us now. Christ said that the Church would prevail, and we have survived all attempts by bad popes and evil clergy to destroy her in the past, but how many souls will be lost before the correction is made--and how terrible will be that correction for those living to endure it??

  • Posted by: - Feb. 27, 2011 6:14 PM ET USA

    I agree that justice must be served. But we really should figure out how we can reduce liability to the rest of the faithful. We have been footing the bill for legal costs and its driving us into the ground. I don't know if it could be done administratively in how we hold properties or what. Its sad that people are taking advantage of money that is supposed to be given to the poor and needy; as if money will actually make them feel any better.

  • Posted by: Tex132 - Feb. 25, 2011 9:38 PM ET USA

    Amen Hartwood. Let them pay the price if they committed a crime. The Church will survive.

  • Posted by: hartwood01 - Feb. 25, 2011 6:49 PM ET USA

    I don't know what one does with the bishops who aided and abetted those molesters, I hate to think how many there are, carrying on business as usual. I wonder that they don't choke in their pulpits, giving "guidance" to the Faithful in the pews. I guess the obvious answer is let them do time as other criminals do, and the Church will have to carry on without them. Christ Our Lord will continue to protect His Church.