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The Catholic Church's Secret Sex-Crime Files

How a scandal in Philadelphia exposed documents that reveal a high-level conspiracy to cover up decades of sexual abuse

September 6, 2011 5:05 PM ET
cardinal bevilacqua archbishop philadelphia sex scandal
Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, the former Archbishop of Philadelphia, was involved in the cover-up of multiple incidents of sexual abuse.
William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

The five co-defendants sit close enough to shake hands in the Philadelphia courtroom, but they never once acknowledge one another. Father James Brennan, a 47-year-old priest accused of raping a 14-year-old boy, looks sad and stooped in a navy sweater, unshaven and sniffling. Edward Avery, a defrocked priest in his sixties, wears an unsettlingly pleasant expression on his face, as though he's mentally very far away. He and two other defendants – the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, also in his sixties, and Bernard Shero, a former Catholic schoolteacher in his forties – are accused of passing around "Billy," a fifth-grade altar boy. According to the charges, the three men raped and sodomized the 10-year-old, sometimes making him perform stripteases or getting him drunk on sacramental wine after Mass.

Heinous as the accusations are, the most shocking – and significant – are those against the fifth defendant, Monsignor William Lynn. At 60, Lynn is portly and dignified, his thin lips pressed together and his double chin held high. In a dramatic fashion statement, he alone has chosen to wear his black clerical garb today, a startling reminder that this is a priest on trial, a revered representative of the Catholic Church, not to mention a high-ranking official in Philadelphia's archdiocese. Lynn, who reported directly to the cardinal, was the trusted custodian of a trove of documents known in the church as the "Secret Archives files." The files prove what many have long suspected: that officials in the upper echelons of the church not only tolerated the widespread sexual abuse of children by priests but conspired to hide the crimes and silence the victims. Lynn is accused of having been the archdiocese's sex-abuse fixer, the man who covered up for its priests. Incredibly, after a scandal that has rocked the church for a generation, he is the first Catholic official ever criminally charged for the cover-up.

"All rise," the court crier intones as the judge enters, and Lynn stands, flanked by his high-powered lawyers, whose hefty fees are being paid by the archdiocese. The implications of the trial are staggering for the church as a whole. In sheltering abusive priests, Lynn wasn't some lone wolf with monstrous sexual appetites, as the church has taken to portraying priests who have molested children. According to two scathing grand-jury reports, protocols for protecting rapists in the clergy have been in place in Philadelphia for half a century, under the regimes of three different cardinals. Lynn was simply a company man, a faithful bureaucrat who did his job exceedingly well. His actions were encouraged by his superiors, who in turn received orders from their superiors – an unbroken chain of command stretching all the way to Rome. In bringing conspiracy charges against Lynn, the Philadelphia district attorney is making a bold statement: that the Catholic hierarchy's failure to protect children from sexual abuse isn't the fault of an inept medieval bureaucracy, but rather the deliberate and criminal work of a cold and calculating organization. In a very real sense, it's not just Lynn who is on trial here. It's the Catholic Church itself.

The deluge of sexual-abuse cases in America's largest religious denomination began in 1985, when a Louisiana priest was sentenced to 20 years in prison after admitting to sexually abusing 37 boys. But it wasn't until 2002, when civil suits in Boston revealed that Cardinal Bernard Law had shielded rapist priests, that the extent of the scandal became widely known. In Germany, the church is overwhelmed by hundreds of alleged victims, and investigations are under way in Austria and the Netherlands. In Ireland, the government recently issued a scathing report that documents how Irish clergy – with tacit approval from the Vatican – covered up the sexual abuse of children as recently as 2009.

Battered by civil suits and bad press, the church has responded with a head-spinning mix of contrition and deflection, blaming anti-Catholic bias and the church's enemies for paying undue attention to the crisis. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops helped fund a $1.8 million study of sex-abuse cases against priests, but the results read like a mirthless joke: To lower the number of clergy classified as "pedophiles," the report redefines "puberty" as beginning at age 10 – and then partially blames the rise in child molesting on the counterculture of the 1960s. The church also insists that any sex crimes by priests are a thing of the past. "The abuse crisis," the study's lead author concluded, "is over."

That echoed statements by Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who went on 60 Minutes declaring the scandal "nothing less than hideous" and then, with a sweep of his hand, announced, "That's over with!" Dolan, in turn, sounded a lot like Bishop Wilton Gregory, the former president of the USCCB, who framed the lie more eloquently: "The terrible history recorded here is history." That was in 2004, seven years ago.

Given how the innermost workings of Catholic culture have long been cloaked in secrecy, the case in Philadelphia offers a rare opportunity to understand why the cover-up of sexual abuse has continued for so long, despite the church's repeated promises of reform. The answer, in large part, lies in the mindset of the church's rigid hierarchy, which promotes officials who are willing to do virtually anything they're told, so long as it's in God's name. "It's almost like the type of stuff you see in cult behavior," says a former Philadelphia priest who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution. "Someone on the outside would say, 'That's crazy.' But when you're on the inside, you say, 'It's perfectly right, because everything is divinely inspired.' If you have a monopoly on God, you can get away with anything."

Long before he became the guardian of the church's secrets, Bill Lynn was a boy with a higher calling. In the fall of 1968, after graduating from Bishop McDevitt High School in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Lynn arrived at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, a stately campus whose soaring chapels, somber libraries and marble sculptures with heads bowed in prayer gave off an aura of reverence, history and costly precision. Lynn, a friendly, overweight boy whose acne-scarred face was topped with jet-black hair, was ready to begin his eight-year path to priestly ordination, a process the church calls "formation."

At St. Charles, Lynn was plunged into an environment in which every moment was accounted for. Strict rules governed all aspects of life, especially the personal. Besides the obvious prohibitions on sexual contact – including with oneself, or even in one's imagination – no seminarian was allowed to get too close with his peers, since he was to concentrate on developing bonds with God and the church. Seminary is a form of military-style indoctrination, molding men to think institutionally, not individually. "It's like a brainwashing, almost," says Michael Lynch, who attended St. Charles for nine years but was rejected for priesthood after repeatedly butting heads with his superiors. Lynch recalls a priest barking at his class, "We own you! We own your body, we own your soul!"

The goal of priesthood is a lofty one: a man placed on a pedestal for his community to revere, an alter Christus – "another Christ" – who can literally channel the power of Jesus and help create the perfect society intended by God. To model that perfection and elevate themselves above the sinful laity, clergy adopt a vow of celibacy, which has served as a centerpiece of Catholic priesthood since the 12th century. It's a tall order to sculpt chaste, living incarnations of Jesus out of the sloppy clay of your average 18-year-old male. Even many of those who wind up being ordained fail to maintain their chastity: According to a 1990 study by psychologist Richard Sipe, only half of all priests adhere to their vows of celibacy. It is not just the sex-abuse epidemic the church seeks to deny, but sex itself.

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