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Lawsuit Against Catholic Church Unveils Secret Archives Files

Rolling Stone September 15, 2011 — Recently disclosed in a Philadelphia sex abuse case, “Secret Archives files” prove what many have long suspected: high-ranking Catholic Church officials not only tolerated sexual abuse of children by priests, but conspired to hide the crimes and silence the victims. Five priests will be put on trial this winter — four are charged with sexual crimes against children, but one high-ranking official in the Catholic Church is accused of being the “sex-abuse fixer,” by covering up abuse by priests. Significantly, Monsignor William Lynn is the first Catholic official to be criminally charged of cover-up.

60-year-old Monsignor William Lynn was named the secretary of the clergy in 1992, a position that effectively made him the human resource director for the Philadelphia archdiocese, which includes about 400 priests. In this job, he reported directly to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua and was the custodian of documents known in the church as the “Secret Archives files,” pages that contain complaints against priests so scandalous they need to be kept out of the regular personal files.

In the Philadelphia archdiocese, the only keyholders to these files were the cardinal himself and his closest aides. The files were maintained in a row of unlabeled, gray-green cabinets in a 12th floor room of the Center City office tower.

The files contain 50 years of scandal, including information about priests who had drinking problems, priests who had impregnated women, and stacks of confiscated pornography. There was also information about priests who had sexually abused children in their care, which the archdiocese carefully refers to as “unnatural involvements” or “unusual patterns.”

As secretary of the clergy, Lynn effectively became the master of damage control whenever a new scandalous report was received. If a priest broke any rules, it was his job to discipline him and inform his superiors.

Unfortunately, while he comforted victims with kind and reassuring words, Flynn did little to hold his peers accountable. Lynn never reported any of these cases to the Philadelphia police.

Lynn knew the most important responsibility of his job was to preserve the reputation of the church. More often then not, this meant quietly reassigning a priest accused of sexual abuse to a new parish, where parishioners would be unaware of his indiscretions. Even priests who openly admitted to committing abuse only received a minimal stay in a secret therapy treatment program, with little follow-up from church officials. Then they too were reassigned to a far-off parish.

While it was his job to discipline priests who had done wrong, Flynn proved himself to be unfailingly sympathetic to clergy sex abuse offenders, even comforting a distraught priest who had just confessed to abusing boys by suggesting his 11-year-old victim had “seduced” him.

All the while, he promised victims that their abusers would never work as priests again.

In one case, a woman reported a priest abused her while she attended Catholic high school. Lynn comforted her by promising the offender would no longer be allowed to work as a pastor. Yet, the victim found out years later that he continued to serve as a priest in Maryland — after reading his obituary.

While the first priest was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sexually abusing 37 boys in 1985, it was only after the 2002 Boston civil suits against Cardinal Bernard Law that the sex abuse scandal became widely known.

As the clergy scrambled to calm followers, Philadelphia’s Cardinal Bevilacqua declared in the past 50 years, only 35 priests had been credibly accused of committing sexual abuse. However, the district attorney’s office never received reports of any of these. When the district attorney asked for details following Bevilacqua’s declaration, the archdiocese refused to cooperate, prompting a grand-jury investigation, which unearthed the Secret Archives files.

Total, there were thousands of documents that detailed the hundreds of victims who had allegedly been abused by 169 priests.

After the investigation, the grand jury released a 418-page report in 2005, which stands as the most comprehensive account of the church’s institutional cover-up of the sexual abuse. It named 63 priests, who despite being credibly accused, had been hidden and protected by the direction of Cardinal Bevilacqua and his predecessor. The report gave other examples of Lynn covering up crimes at the recommendation of his boss.

The report will be used in the upcoming trial against Lynn and four priests, including three priests who allegedly passed around a fifth-grade altar boy known only as “Billie,” who was apparently raped and sodomized by the three men, who sometimes made him perform stripteases or drink sacramental wine after Mass to get him drunk.

One of the priest’s accused in the case was previously reported for molestation by a boy named “James.” After James wrote a letter of complaint to Lynn, the priest attended therapy and was relocated to a parish with an elementary school — the same parish where Billie was supposedly sexually abused.

Said the grand jury report: “In its callous, calculating manner, the archdiocese’s ‘handling’ of the abuse scandal was at least as immoral as the abuse itself.”

Perhaps even more immoral is how the church responded to the grand jury report. The church instituted measures to help improve the handling of victim complaints, including the creation of a clergy-review board that could unbiasedly review abuse cases. It also involved creating a Victim Assistance Program, where survivors could receive counseling paid for by the church.

Unfortunately, the grand jury found the review counsel only received a slim portion of the abuse cases for review. And even those reviewed were often dismissed, despite credible accusations. Additionally, the Victim Assistance Program was only used as a vehicle to further protect the church, by discouraging victims from calling the police and by even collecting information that could later be used against them in court.

Billy’s case has become the foundation for the grand jury’s current investigation, with the trial scheduled to begin this winter. Other suits have been filed in Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Ireland.

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