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 See full bio.

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  • 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.