What if Monsignor Lynn is right?

In his trial on charges of criminally endangering children, Monsignor William Lynn portrayed himself as a man of conscience who quietly tried to help victims despite the indifference of his superiors.Maryclaire Dale of The Associated Press summarized his defense this way:

A Roman Catholic church official is being unfairly prosecuted for the sins of the church and the rogue conduct of predator-priests, a defense lawyer said Thursday as he asked jurors in a groundbreaking trial to acquit his client.

"You have witnessed evil in this courtroom. You have seen the dark side of the church. You've seen grown men come into this courtroom and weep because they were abused," said lawyer Thomas Bergstrom. "And now, the sins of all these fathers that he laid bare - that he laid bare - are now laid at his feet."

Lynn maintained that the prosecutors' prized exhibit - a secret list of 35 suspected pedophile priests - was actually evidence of his innocence. He said he drew the list up to call attention to the problem; Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua ordered it destroyed. (A copy survived.) No wonder the jurors, who resume deliberation in Philadelphia on Monday, asked for it right away.Many scoff at this defense. But my experience in covering scores of trials is that, regardless of the verdict, the truth of what happened usually falls someplace between the prosecution and defense versions. And so, what if Monsignor Lynn is right?

What if he made a sincere effort, within the confines of obedience to the cardinal, to address the problem of clergy sexual abuse? What if he decided that, rather than speak out, it would be better for children if he worked within the system?The rejoinder is that if Monsignor Lynn really believed he was surrounded by evil, he had a duty to speak out about it. Should he not have cooperated with the police and the families of victims instead of lying to them, as the prosecutor charged?But suppose Lynn's defense raises the reasonable doubt that leads to his acquittal? If Monsignor Lynn is right, it means that obedience is so enshrined in the culture of the church - or at least it was in this archdiocese - that a decent man could not reasonably be expected to do the decent thing.No verdict is needed to see that both the prosecution and defense versions of the facts offer a sorry picture of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia - which had responded in 2005 to a critical grand jury report by calling it "anti-Catholic" and "a vile, mean-spirited diatribe." It called the portrayal of Cardinal Bevilacqua "cruel and undeserved" and "vicious."But when he testified, Monsignor Lynn specifically held the late cardinal responsible for the actions he is accused of:

Lynn said it was Bevilacqua, not [Monsignor James] Molloy, as prosecutors had suggested, who instructed him in a 1991 note never to tell a priest's accuser if others have come forward with complaints.

Lynn also testified that Bevilacqua directed that any notices about an accused priest's removal or transfer from a parish should say only that they were on "health leave" - not that they had been accused of abuse.

Obedience has always been a part of religious life, but it shouldn't be absolute. It shouldn't require a priest to lie to parishioners or to victims of sexual crimes.If Monsignor Lynn believed obedience required this, it is further evidence that the system is badly in need of reform. Church whistleblowers need to be protected against ecclesiastical retaliation, and the exaltation of obedience one hears so often in official church discourse needs to be qualified.Francis of Assisi understood this. Although he emphasized obedience to church authority, he also saw its limits and allowed for dissent against the minister-general of his order. In his Rule of 1221, he instructed: "A friar is not bound to obey if a minister commands anything that is contrary to our life or his own conscience, because there can be no obligation to obey if it means committing sin."

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. 

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Collections