By Dave Warner
PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - One of the most closely watched child sex abuse trials involving the Roman Catholic Church began on Monday with a prosecutor asserting that Monsignor William Lynn was the "keeper of secrets" and his lawyer countering that he alone tried to stop the abuse.
At the center of opening arguments in the case against Lynn, the most senior cleric to stand trial in the church's sex abuse scandal, was the Philadelphia Archdiocese's "secret archive" of files containing information about hundreds of suspect priests.
Lynn, 61, is charged with endangering the welfare of children and conspiracy for covering up allegations against priests. He faces a maximum of 28 years in prison if convicted of all counts.
Lynn served as secretary of the clergy under the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Philadelphia's archbishop from 1988 to 2003. That made Lynn, in effect, the personnel director for 800 priests, responsible for investigating sex abuse claims.
His lawyer said on Monday that Lynn tried to stop the abuse, going so far as to comb through the "secret archive" to make a list of 35 clergy who were involved in abusive conduct or were classified with a sexual disorder.
Lynn gave that list to Bevilacqua in 1994, only to have his boss order it shredded, defense attorney Thomas Bergstrom told the jury in Common Pleas Court. He said the real criminals in the cover-up were Bevilacqua and his top advisers, who carried out the shredding.
"I think the evidence in this case is that he is the one, and he was alone, in trying to correct it," Bergstrom said.
The prosecution, however, said Lynn's chief concern was "to keep a lid on scandal" and "the furthest thing from defendant Lynn's mind" was keeping children safe.
"The defendant is the keeper of secrets," Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Coelho said in her opening statement.
Bevilacqua, who died in January at age 88, left behind videotaped testimony that could be introduced during the trial.
The Vatican is closely watching the criminal trial involving the sixth largest diocese in the United States, said Terry McKiernan, co-director of BishopAccountability.org, a watchdog group.
"This is cause for major anxiety in the church," McKiernan said.
Four others were indicted with Lynn, including Reverend James Brennan, 49, who is charged with child abuse and is on trial with Lynn. Defrocked priest Edward Avery, who was to go on trial with Lynn too, pleaded guilty last week to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old altar boy at church in 1999.
Another priest and a former archdiocese school teacher will be tried at a later date.
A grand jury in January 2011 indicted Lynn, after the statute of limitations was expanded in response to a 2003 grand jury that was unable to bring charges against priests because the alleged sexual assaults had occurred years earlier.
"Over the past two decades, Msgr. Lynn has put literally thousands of children at risk of sexual abuse by placing them in the care of known child molesters. We believe that legal accountability for Msgr. Lynn's unconscionable behavior is long overdue, and that he should be prosecuted for endangering the welfare of the victims in these cases," the grand jury said in its 2011 report.
Other criminal cases against senior officials have ended in plea bargains, effectively eliminating the chance for probing questions to be asked in open court.
The cost of the scandal - particularly from settling a flood of victim lawsuits - has already bankrupted eight diocese, most recently the Archdiocese of Milwaukee as well as the diocese of Wilmington, Delaware, which has sought Chapter 11 protection.
Lawsuits against the Philadelphia Archdiocese have been filed on behalf of six alleged victims of sex abuse by priests, but those cases have not yet gone to trial.
Perhaps the highest-profile case to date occurred in 2002 in Boston, where hundreds of people said they had been molested by priests and ultimately Cardinal Bernard Law lost his job as the head of the archdiocese.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Eric Walsh)