Lawsuits allege priest abuse, cover-up

Eight more priest-abuse lawsuits were filed Tuesday against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and its priests, including a jailed monsignor who now says he was convicted of child endangerment following a sham abuse plea by a defrocked co-defendant.

PHILADELPHIA — Eight more priest-abuse lawsuits were filed Tuesday against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and its priests, including a jailed monsignor who now says he was convicted of child endangerment following a sham abuse plea by a defrocked co-defendant.

The civil lawsuits were filed by nine plaintiffs. Two spoke at a news conference, saying the abuse they suffered as children still haunts them and they wanted to go public to help other victims.

Michael McDonnell held up a photo of himself as a sixth-grader at St. Titus School in suburban East Norriton, where he said he was abused by two priests for several years beginning in 1980.

“When I look at that picture I remember what happened … I see a sad face in that photo,” said McDonnell, who was joined by his wife and 6-year-old son. He said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, mental illness and drug addiction because of the abuse.

Andrew Druding said the abuse he suffered when he was 9 at the hands of a priest at St. Timothy School in northeast Philadelphia strained relationships with his family and friends and caused flashbacks that persist 40 years later.

“These things do not define me but they have left me as damaged goods,” he said. “This is my opportunity to an extent to fight back and to start the healing I need to go through.”

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said their clients decided to come forward when Monsignor William Lynn was convicted and received a three- to six-year prison sentence. Lynn, 61, is the first U.S. church official convicted of endangering children by helping the church move predators from parish to parish.

Lynn’s lawyers now say Philadelphia prosecutors had “compelling reasons to doubt” a guilty plea that underpins his landmark June conviction.

They believe defrocked priest Edward Avery may have pleaded guilty to abusing a boy he’d never met because the 2 1/2- to five-year plea offer was a safer bet than going to trial and facing other accusers.

Avery’s plea to sex-assault and conspiracy charges changed the dynamics of Lynn’s trial.

Lynn apologized on the witness stand, saying an earlier complaint he had against Avery had “fallen through the cracks.” Jurors convicted him of a single count of endangering Avery’s victim.

According to a bail petition Lynn filed Monday, Avery’s lawyers had told prosecutors that Avery denied ever meeting “Billy,” as the grand jury report calls his accuser, a troubled policeman’s son who said he was raped by two priests and a teacher.

Prosecutors also knew Avery had passed a defence polygraph test and had offered to admit fondling the earlier victim, according to Lynn’s lawyers.

“It would have been a different trial had we known that,” defence lawyer Thomas Bergstrom said Tuesday. “The commonwealth was driven by a zealous and single-minded desire to try (Lynn) and obtain a conviction.”

Prosecutors stood by the integrity of Avery’s plea, noting that he told a judge he had committed the crimes.

“In order to plead guilty, … you have to say under oath you committed the things that you are accused of doing,” Assistant District Attorney Hugh Burns said.

Avery’s plea affects not only Lynn’s case, but at least two other pending cases.

“Billy” is the lone accuser in the upcoming trial of the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and former teacher Bernard Shero, making his credibility crucial. And he has sued the archdiocese, Avery and others for damages. His civil lawyer called Avery’s plea “proof positive” of the civil complaint.

“The civil case is over,” McLaughlin said. “It’s just a matter of how much money is going to be awarded by a jury.”

Avery’s lawyer, Michael Wallace, said he could not comment because Avery remains a potential witness at the Engelhardt-Shero trial, which is set for January and is covered by a gag order.

The new lawsuits filed Tuesday name Lynn, Archbishop Charles Chaput, his predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, and the seven priests accused by the plaintiffs of sexual abuse.

“No one knew more about the abuse than the archdiocese itself and no one did less to help children,” said Marci Hamilton, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs.

Her law firm said it has filed 16 civil suits against the archdiocese. Other lawyers also have filed suit or represent accusers contemplating lawsuits against the archdiocese.

In a statement, the archdiocese said it had not yet seen the latest lawsuits and could not comment on them, but added that “lawsuits are not the best mechanism to promote healing.” The church stressed that it would work with any victim of sexual abuse in getting help.

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