High-ranking Catholic priest Monsignor William Lynn protected the dark "secrets" of child-abusing subordinates, a US prosecutor said Monday at the start of a landmark trial.
The trial of the most senior church official in the United States to be charged with covering up priests' sexual abuse of children began under heavy media scrutiny in Philadelphia.
Prosecutors are targeting Lynn for allegedly shuffling two priests suspected of child abuse to other positions, thereby enabling the crimes to continue.
Assistant district attorney Jacqueline Coelho described Lynn as the "keeper of the secrets," tasked with protecting the church from scandal and keeping parishioners in the dark. "The protection of children was the furthest thing from defendant Lynn's mind," Coelho said.
She promised the jury a painstaking review of church archives in which Lynn would be incriminated by his own words.
Defense attorneys were to give their opening statements later Monday.
The role of such a senior official, whose co-defendant Reverend James Brennan is accused of sexually abusing boys in the 1990s, makes the trial the first of its kind in the United States.
In a surprise pretrial twist Thursday, the other co-defendant, defrocked priest Edward Avery, pleaded guilty to his own sex crimes, thereby avoiding trial. He was immediately sentenced to between two-and-a-half and five years in prison.
Defense lawyers filed papers seeking a delay in the trial, arguing that jurors may have learned of the plea over the weekend, a factor that could damage their clients' chance. The judge, Theresa Sarmina, rejected those arguments and ordered the trial to start.
The case threatens to widen the legal onslaught over a scandal that has already bled the Catholic Church of credibility and money.
"If these ranks of middle managers from which the bishops are drawn, if this really starts to be scrutinized, the people who have become bishops are going to be caught in the web," Terry McKiernan, from the website bishop-accountability.org, which tracks reported abuses, told AFP.
In laying out the case against Lynn, Coelho told the jury about roughly 11 priests, including Avery and Brennan, who had been accused of molesting children.
Some of those allegations dated back to the late 1940s, too long ago to be prosecuted. But Coelho told jurors that despite such allegations, each priest still received assignments from Lynn that put him in contact with children.
She faulted a church culture in which "the victims' accounts should be met with skepticism, and priests' accounts should be believed."
Avery, who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a boy under 13 years old, was sent to a facility specializing in rehabilitation of sex offender priests.
But, as in other alleged cases, Lynn then assigned Avery to a parish with a school, despite the fact that Avery's therapist warned against putting him around children.
At that parish, in the 1990s, Avery encountered a 10 year-old altar boy referred to in court documents as "Bill," and abused him.
In another incident described in court documents, Brennan allegedly raped a 14 year-old boy during a sleepover at Brennan's apartment in 1996.
Even after that boy's parents reported the rape to the archdiocese, Lynn did not take action beyond transferring Brennan within the Philadelphia region.
Defense lawyers are casting doubt on the credibility of two alleged victims who have long histories of drug abuse and also are looking to sue the archdiocese for millions of dollars in a civil suit.