Friday, October 24, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Verdict showed the church as a whole wasn't guilty

I'VE BEEN PRAYING a lot of rosaries lately, some for personal reasons and the rest for my church. I finger the beads with reverence, knowing that each prayer brings me closer to a resolution, if not absolution.

In my heart, I love my church with the same accepting reverence of a child. In my mind, I know that sins were committed, crimes concealed, and so the rosary helps me find that inner place of peace. It also helps me face the painful truths that children who accepted, with reverence, that priests were all good men were betrayed.

My task is a private one. Not so for those 12 Philadelphia jurors who sacrificed three months of their lives to sort out the truths hidden among horrific allegations of abuse. They were not obligated to find peace but, rather, justice. And they did a magnificent job Friday, when they rendered a verdict that was both fair and heart-wrenching.

They were not looking for vengeance, nor were they willing to execute other people's vendettas. They listened to the law, listened to the facts, heard the cries of alleged victims and watched the faces of alleged perpetrators, and then came to a decision.

Monsignor William Lynn: Guilty of child endangerment, not guilty of conspiracy.

Rev. James Brennan: A mistrial, on rape and child endangerment.

The Philadelphia Archdiocese: Not guilty.

The only way that Mother Church could have been held responsible by that jury would have been if the jury had come out and clearly found that a conspiracy had existed to hurt children. They didn't, or couldn't, do that.

We can have all the pundits in the world saying that one conviction for child endangerment is momentous, that this is an indictment of a pathological cult that hates women and gays and abuses babies, that we Catholics are all guilty by association and that the world is filled with silent, nameless victims. And perhaps someday, they may have proof to buttress those allegations.

But not today. Not with this jury. Monsignor Lynn was rightly convicted of putting a child in danger when he allowed admitted sex criminal Edward Avery to remain in the ministry even after he had proof that the man was a pedophile. This should be enough to keep him in jail for a long time. Personally, his Nuremberg defense of "I was just following rules" has the same moral weight of a Nazi's statement that he "followed that law" and ordered the massacre of millions of Jews.

There was clearly enough evidence, some from the defendant's own mouth, that he knowingly put children in the path of danger under some misguided sense that he was doing Christian charity. So we have to applaud the jury for saying, loudly and clearly, that we cannot abdicate our own responsibilities even in the face of the pressure to cover up.

But where was the evidence of an institutional coverup in this case? There wasn't any, at least according to this jury. And that is where the true power of the verdict lies. As one of the jurors said when asked what happened during deliberations: "[This case] was not about the Catholic Church. This was about the people who were on trial here. Everybody in the Catholic Church is not bad, and I'm not changing my opinion about the church. There are just some people who do bad things, make bad decisions, and make bad choices."

Mirabile dictum! Wonderful to tell! That is the truth that victims' groups will try to ignore in this verdict. They will trumpet Lynn's conviction on personal charges of child endangerment as an indictment of the church as a whole, and will shamelessly engage in guilt by association, using the Philadelphia case as a victory.

I agree that Philadelphia is indeed a victory, but not for the same reasons that people who want statutes of limitations abolished seem to think. This case shows that when you apply existing laws to the facts, you elicit certain truths that then become moral triumphs. A man of God abdicated his duties as a shepherd of men — boys, actually — and the law held him responsible.

On the other hand, good men and women refused to throw a hair shirt of guilt on the shoulders of others who had no direct role in harming those children. Conspiracy, the easy way out when you want to nab a mobster, had no place in this prosecution and the jury saw through the bald attempts to attack a church as opposed to a churchman.

Mirabile visu! Wonderful to see!

Another important point that we cannot ignore is that even with the existing statutes of limitations, a conviction was rendered. Supporters of abolishing those statutes no longer have a leg to stand on, because their attempts to get some sort of retroactive justice (or vengeance) now seem self-interested, particularly when they talk about "civil" (spelled m-o-n-e-y) claims. The prosecutors used examples of abuse that fell out of the current statutes to buttress their claims that the church had an institutional policy of hiding abusers. The not-guilty verdict on Lynn's conspiracy charge shows that it didn't wash with the jury.

I'm glad Monsignor Lynn is being held accountable for the damage he allowed, if not directly caused. I'm also glad that the attempt to paint my church as a hotbed of criminals failed miserably. n

Christine Flowers is a lawyer. Send email to cflowers1961@gmail.com and read her blog at philly.com/FlowersShow
Christine M. Flowers Daily News Columnist