State Supreme Court upholds conviction in pedophile priest case

Monsignor William Lynn walks from the criminal justice center after a bail hearing in Philadelphia last year. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling this week upholds the 2012 conviction of Lynn over abuse committed by a diocesan priest years earlier. — AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File

The conviction of Monsignor William Lynn was reinstated this week after a successful challenge from Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams. The state Supreme Court action reverses a lower court decision to overturn the conviction.

Lynn’s 2012 conviction was the first of a high-ranking Catholic Church administrator for knowingly moving a pedophile priest to multiple parishes.

“I was pleased to learn that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court believes that there is sufficient evidence to prove Monsignor William Lynn guilty of endangering the welfare of children,” Williams said. “The Supreme Court saw the same evidence that the hard working men and women of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office presented in court, and we are gratified that the court supports our interpretation of the evidence. I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank the brave victims who testified in court and their families for supporting them.”

Lynn, 62, spent 18 months behind bars as part of a three-to-six year sentence. Based on a lengthy and complicated grand jury investigation — the second grand jury to take on the Philadelphia Archdiocese — it was determined that Lynn, as the secretary of the clergy, knew about the allegations of sexual abuse by some of the priests of the Philadelphia Archdiocese. It was further determined that in addition to knowing that some of the priests had raped young boys, Lynn allegedly didn’t act to have them removed from the church, but instead continued to reassign them.

Also prosecuted in the case were former priests Edward Avery, James Brennan and Charles Englehardt and former parochial school teacher Bernard Shero. All were convicted or pleaded guilty. The charges against Brennan were dropped when the witness against him died.

The decision to reverse Lynn’s conviction rested on the amendments of the Pennsylvania statute on endangering the welfare of children. A panel of three appellate court judges, President Judge John Bender and Judges Christine Donohue and John Musmanno, reviewed the case.

“Prior to Jan. 29, 2007, the statute read: ‘a parent, guardian or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age commits an offense if he knowingly endangers the welfare of the child by violating a duty of care, protection or support,” Bender wrote. “The 2007 amendment added language such that the statute now reads: ‘a parent, guardian or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 or a person that employs or supervises such a person, commits an offense.”

Bender noted that during Lynn’s trial, prosecutors argued he violated that statute by assigning Avery to an environment where he knew there was significant risk the suspected pedophile would sexually abuse someone. Bender reached the conclusion that the evidence wasn’t sufficient to support Lynn’s conviction of endangering the welfare of children because the Commonwealth failed to offer any evidence that he was a supervisor of the child victims.

The judges didn’t dispute that Lynn’s approach in dealing with sexually abusive priests appeared to be the protection of the Church’s reputation over the safety of potential victims. However, they did not find that was sufficient to support the charges of endangering the welfare of children. The question of whether Lynn’s concern was the protection of the Church’s reputation wasn’t the issue, the judge’s argued in their decision. The relevant question was whether or not Lynn facilitated and promoted continued sexual abuse by reassigning suspected priests such as Edward Avery and Robert Brennan.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed.

“It was Appellee’s responsibility to make recommendations about assignments to the Cardinal, who had the ultimate decision making authority,” they wrote. “For example, Appellee could make recommendations to place a priest on administrative leave or restrict a priest’s ministry by, for instance, prohibiting contact with the public or with children. In this respect, Appellee characterized protecting children as the most important part of his job, and explained that he worked ‘for’ the children of the Archdiocese.”

Allegations of sexual assault by some Catholic Church priests had been surfacing for decades. In 2005, former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham released the results of the first grand jury investigation into those allegations. The biggest crime of all the grand jury stated was the prevention or delay of reports of the alleged sexual assaults, to the point where applicable statutes of limitations expired. Williams convened a second grand jury and its results released in 2011.

“This decision ends a long journey for survivors of clergy abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, who have been waiting for the Pennsylvania courts to finally decide whether Msgr. Lynn would be required to stay in prison for his endangerment of them,” said Philadelphia attorney Marci A. Hamilton who sued the Archdiocese on behalf of the victims. “This marks the most significant criminal prosecution of any Catholic official for the endangerment of numerous children in an Archdiocese. It also puts the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office head and shoulders above all of prosecutors in the United States in obtaining justice in a clergy sex abuse context.”

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