The state’s highest court on Monday reinstated the landmark child-endangerment conviction of a Roman Catholic monsignor who was the first U.S. church official ever prosecuted over his handling of sex abuse complaints.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the 2012 felony conviction of Monsignor William Lynn for endangering an altar boy abused by a priest who had been transferred to his parish despite earlier complaints.
Defense lawyers have long argued that Lynn, as secretary for clergy, was not responsible for the child’s welfare under Pennsylvania law at the time. However, the state Supreme Court in a 4-1 ruling disagreed, potentially sending the 64-year-old Lynn back to prison.
“(Lynn) was a person supervising the welfare of many children because, as a high-ranking official in the archdiocese of Philadelphia, he was specifically responsible for protecting children from sexually abusive priests,” Justice Max Baer wrote.
Lynn had served half of a three-to-six-year sentence when a Superior Court opinion in late 2013 threw out his conviction and led to his release. He has remained on house arrest, in a northeast Philadelphia rectory, while prosecutors appealed.
Defense lawyer Thomas Bergstrom said Lynn may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the novel legal issues in the case.
“They’re equating Lynn with being in charge of all of the children of the archdiocese, whether they were abused or not,” Bergstrom said. “It’s troubling to me that this broad approach would be approved by the court.”
“He, Lynn, never even knew about this abuse until 2009 and never even knew the child existed, let alone that he was being abused by (the Rev. Edward) Avery,” Bergstrom said.
Avery pleaded guilty to abusing the boy in 1998 but later recanted his apparent admission during Lynn’s trial. He is serving 2-1/2 to five years in prison.
Avery was one of several priests reassigned to unsuspecting parishes despite complaints that Lynn reviewed at the archdiocese, where he served under two cardinals from 1992 to 2004. Lynn largely controlled the church’s “secret archives” in Philadelphia, which contained priest complaints dating back to the 1950s.
Lynn testified that he was concerned enough about the clergy-abuse problem that he drew up a 1994 list of 35 accused priests, of whom he labeled 3 “pedophiles,” 12 “guilty of sexual misconduct with minors” and 20 accused “with no conclusive evidence.” Avery topped the “guilty” list.
Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina concluded that Lynn perhaps hoped to address the problem, but declined to challenge Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua when he had the list destroyed. She told Lynn that he “enabled monsters in clerical garb … to destroy the souls of children.”
“I did not intend any harm to come to (the boy),” Lynn said at the July 2012 sentencing. “The fact is, my best was not good enough.”
Avery’s victim also accused another priest and a teacher at the same parish of abusing him. Both were convicted.
Lynn’s lawyers have long argued that the law at the time applied only to parents and caregivers. Lynn has 14 days to appeal Monday’s ruling.
“I don’t think it’s fair to assume anybody’s going to pick him up tonight,” Bergstrom said.
Philadelphia District Attorney’s Seth Williams brought the case even after a predecessor investigated the archdiocese in 2005 but concluded church supervisors could not be charged. Williams on Monday thanked the many “brave victims” who testified about priest sexual-abuse at Lynn’s trial.
“Today’s announcement sends the clear message that if anyone — priest, layperson, citizen, police officer or elected official — knowingly puts children at risk of being sexually molested, they will be held accountable,” Williams said.