The trial of Monsignor William Lynn on charges of child endangerment for allegedly permitting predatory priests to continue in ministry took an interesting turn today with the testimony of a sister who said Lynn could've removed an abusive priest if he really wanted to.The sister, not named in news accounts because she was herself a sexual-abuse victim as a girl, challenged Monsignor Lynn's defense, which is based on the assertion that he didn't have authority to remove a priest from his job.The sister said Lynn, who was secretary of the Office of Clergy in the Philadelphia archdiocese, had the power to at least suggest removing a miscreant priest, and that given his position, the archbishop would have likely signed off. And besides, she said, there was another choice: You can also say, I cannot do this. ... You can walk away.That's the line that grabbed my attention. Leaving aside the legal issues - and I don't think "following orders" is a good defense to rely on - it raises the moral issue of duty to one's conscience.As journalist Ralph Cipriano wrote in a blog post, "It was a simple, but powerful declaration coming from a nun who herself was an administrator down at archdiocese HQ."There has been a great deal of discussion in the church lately about freedom of conscience and use of civil disobedience to oppose unjust government regulation. Perhaps this testimony in the Lynn trial can further discussion about how freedom of conscience applies within the church - when it is appropriate or even required to disobey in conscience.
Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses.