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8 new civil suits allege Philadelphia priest abuse

SHARE 8 new civil suits allege Philadelphia priest abuse

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

The civil lawsuits were filed by a total of nine plaintiffs. Two of them 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 years old at the hands of a priest at St. Timothy School in northeast Philadelphia strained relationships with his family and friends and caused bad dreams and 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 Lynn was convicted and received a three- to six-year prison sentence. The 61-year-old is the first U.S. church official convicted of endangering children by keeping predator priests in ministry. He served as secretary for clergy at the Philadelphia Archdiocese from 1992 to 2004.

Named in the lawsuits are Lynn, Archbishop Charles Chaput, his predecessor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, and the 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. "This archdiocese cannot protect children. The only way to protect children is the legal system — the criminal justice system and civil lawsuits."

Hamilton's law firm says it has filed 16 civil suits against the archdiocese. Several other lawyers also have filed suit or represent accusers contemplating lawsuits against the archdiocese.

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

Meanwhile, Lynn's lawyers now say Philadelphia prosecutors had "compelling reasons to doubt" a guilty plea that underpins his landmark conviction.

They believe defrocked priest Edward Avery perhaps 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.

The attorneys who filed the civil suits Tuesday dismissed that claim as "ludicrous," pointing out that Avery is named in one of them. His accuser is one of two already known to investigators but he had not until now filed a civil action against the defrocked, jailed former priest, his lawyers said.

Avery's plea to a sex-assault charge and conspiracy changed the dynamics of Lynn's trial this spring. Jurors convicted him of a single count of endangering Avery's victim, who said he was abused years after Lynn handled an earlier sex-abuse complaint against Avery.

Lynn apologized on the witness stand, saying the earlier complaint from a doctor had "fallen through the cracks." He is seeking bail while he appeals.

According to a bail petition filed Monday, Avery's lawyers told prosecutors that Avery denied ever meeting "Billy," as the grand jury report calls the troubled policeman's son who claims he was abused in 1999 by Avery, another priest and his sixth-grade teacher.

Prosecutors also knew Avery had passed a defense polygraph test and offered to instead admit fondling the doctor, according to Lynn's lawyers. They complained that none of this was disclosed to them, and said it would have affected their trial strategy had they known Avery's plea was dubious.

"This newly discovered information leads to the disturbing conclusion that that the commonwealth was driven by a zealous and single-minded desire to try (Lynn) and obtain a conviction, despite information that put into question the justice of pursuing that outcome," Lynn's lawyers wrote.

Prosecutors called the allegations "completely false" and plan to file a written response to the bail petition. 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, Slade McLaughlin, did not immediately return a message Tuesday seeking comment.

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.