PHILADELPHIA - Nearly a decade after the scandal over sexual abuse by priests erupted, Philadelphia's district attorney has taken a step no prosecutor in the U.S. had taken before: filing criminal charges against a high-ranking Roman Catholic official for allegedly failing to protect children.
"I love my church," said District Attorney Seth Williams, himself a Catholic, "but I detest the criminal behavior of priests who abuse or allow the abuse of children."
Williams announced charges Thursday against three priests, a parochial school teacher and Monsignor William Lynn, who as secretary of the clergy was one of the top officials in the Philadelphia Archdiocese from 1992 to 2004.
The three priests and the teacher were charged with raping boys. Lynn, 60, was accused not of molesting children but of endangering them. A damning grand jury report said at least two boys were sexually assaulted because he put two known pedophiles in posts where they had contact with youngsters.
"The rapist priests we accuse were well-known to the secretary of clergy, but he cloaked their conduct and put them in place to do it again," the report said.
The grand jury report went further and suggested that the archbishop at the time, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who retired in 2003, may have known what was going on. But no charges were brought against him. The report said that there is no direct evidence against the cardinal and that his lawyer testified that the 87-year-old Bevilacqua is suffering from dementia and cancer.
"On balance, we cannot conclude that a successful prosecution can be brought against the cardinal - at least for the moment," the grand jury said.
Lynn could get up to 14 years in prison if convicted. His attorney, Tom Bergstrom, said: "We certainly don't concede for a moment that he knew he was putting children at risk."
Mark Crawford, New Jersey state director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, joined a few other activists for a rally Friday outside the archdiocese headquarters to welcome the indictment.
"It's really incredible it's taken this long to say, 'Enough is enough,'" he said.
Five years ago, Williams' predecessor as district attorney issued a scathing report accusing the church of protecting child-molesting priests. But no charges were brought against the church, a huge and powerful entity in the Philadelphia region, where about one-third of the population is Catholic. With 1.5 million Catholics, the archdiocese is one of the biggest in the country.
The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer and one-time church insider who has become an advocate for victims of clergy abuse, said the charges against the monsignor reflect the shrinking power and influence of the Catholic Church since the crisis erupted in Boston in 2002.
"Up until now, there have been threats and the possibility of indictment, but for political reasons, people did not want to move in on the Catholic Church. It's never happened," Doyle said. "I really think this is a major breakthrough and I really hope that it is a signal and a sign of encouragement for district attorneys and federal prosecutors around the country."
Lynne Abraham, Williams' predecessor as district attorney, said the reason there haven't been charges before isn't political. She said victims are afraid to come forward when the wrongdoers are in positions of authority. And by the time the scandal unfolded, the statute of limitations had expired in the cases she investigated, she said.
Cardinal Justin Rigali, who succeeded Bevilacqua, said in a statement that the church is cooperating with authorities and would consider the grand jury's recommendations. He also said there are no priests working in the archdiocese who "have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them."
Outside the U.S., one Catholic bishop in France was convicted of shielding a priest in a sex-abuse. Pierre Pican, bishop of Bayeux-Lisieux in northwestern France, was sentenced to a three-month suspended prison term.
Over the past decade, prosecutors have pressed high-ranking church officials in the U.S. to accept responsibility for covering up abuse but never actually brought criminal charges against them as individuals.
For instance, Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien admitted in 2003 that he sheltered abusive priests, an acknowledgment made as part of a deal with prosecutors that gave him immunity from any potential obstruction-of-justice charge. He agreed to institute reforms and cede some authority to other church officials.
The Diocese of Manchester, N.H., admitted wrongdoing but avoided criminal charges in 2003. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati pleaded no contest in 2003 to charges of failing to tell authorities about sex abuse claims against priests, paid a fine and created a fund for victims.
And in 2005, the Boston Archdiocese struck a deal to avoid an unprecedented federal indictment on allegations of making a false statement to federal authorities. Among other things, the archdiocese agreed to closer scrutiny of its child-protection programs.
The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office also convened a grand jury in 2002 to look into abuse by priests since the 1960s. Its report, issued in 2005, said that there was evidence of abuse by at least 63 priests and that church officials had transferred offenders to other parishes and dioceses. While Bevilacqua and other church officials were criticized, none were charged.
Abraham, district attorney at the time of the 2005 report, which included names and photographs of allegedly abusive priests, said Friday that it was the statute of limitations that held her office back. She joined other advocates in pressing for Pennsylvania's child protection laws to be rewritten. She said the resulting changes helped clear the way for the charges Williams brought.
In a statement announcing the case against the five defendants Thursday, Williams said: "I know ultimately they will be judged by higher authority. For now, it is my responsibility as the elected district attorney of all the citizens of Philadelphia to hold them accountable."
Lavoie reported from Boston. Associated Press Religion Writer Rachel Zoll in New York and videographer Angie Yack in Philadelphia also contributed.