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 behaviour of priests who abuse or allow the abuse of children.”

Mr. Williams announced charges on 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 grand jury report said at least two boys were sexually assaulted because he put two known paedophiles 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 on Friday outside the archdiocese headquarters to welcome the charges.

“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.

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