PHILADELPHIA – A Roman Catholic church official who has been jailed for more than a year for his handling of priest sex-abuse complaints had his conviction reversed and was ordered released Thursday.
In dismissing the landmark criminal case, a three-judge appeals court panel unanimously rejected prosecutors’ arguments that Monsignor William Lynn, the first U.S. church official ever charged or convicted for the handling of clergy-abuse complaints, was legally responsible for the abused child’s welfare.
“He’s been in prison 18 months for a crime he didn’t commit and couldn’t commit under the law,” said his attorney, Thomas Bergstrom. “It’s incredible what happened to this man.”
Lynn, 62, is serving a three- to six-year prison sentence after his child-endangerment conviction last year. His lawyers will try to get him released as early as this week from the state prison in Waymart. Prosecutors promised to fight the ruling and any move to release him.
Prosecutors had argued at trial that Lynn reassigned known predators to new parishes in Philadelphia while he was the archdiocese’s secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004. Lynn’s conviction stems from the case of one priest, Edward Avery, found to have abused a child in 1998 after such a transfer.
Lynn’s attorneys have long contended the state’s child-endangerment law at the time applied only to parents and caregivers, not supervisors like Lynn. Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina had rejected their argument and allowed the case to move forward.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said he strongly disagrees with state Superior Court panel’s 43-page opinion reversing Sarmina’s decision.
“Because we will be appealing, the conviction still stands for now, and the defendant cannot be lawfully released until the end of the process,” Williams said in a statement.
Sarmina concluded Lynn perhaps drafted a 1994 list of accused priests to try to address the clergy abuse problem. But when Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua had the list destroyed, Lynn chose to stick around – and keep quiet, she said. A copy of the list was found years later in a safe and repeatedly was discussed at trial.
Sarmina, in sentencing Lynn in July 2012, had said the church administrator had “enabled monsters in clerical garb … to destroy the souls of children,” rather than stand up to his bishop.
Lynn told the judge: “I did not intend any harm to come to (the boy). The fact is, my best was not good enough to stop that harm.”
Lynn’s supporters believe he was made a scapegoat for the church’s sins, including two cardinals who were never charged. Nonetheless, Bergstrom said his client hopes to return to ministry, and has enjoyed support of the current Philadelphia archbishop, Charles J. Chaput, who twice visited him in prison.
Lynn had left the archdiocesan hierarchy for parish work after he featured prominently in a damning 2005 grand jury report into the priest-abuse scandal. Then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham concluded that too much time had passed to charge anyone criminally despite decades of abuse complaints against dozens of priests.
Williams, her successor, revisited the issue when new accusers came forward under new laws that extended the time limits and added church or school supervisors to the list of people who could be charged. Williams filed the novel child-endangerment case against Lynn, while charging three other priests and a teacher of sexually abusing children.
Three of them have been convicted while the jury deadlocked in the fourth case.
Lynn’s trial lasted several months, although a majority of the testimony involved victim testimony from earlier, uncharged priest-abuse cases, much of it graphic. Sarmina allowed the jury to hear that evidence to let prosecutors show the pattern of behavior by Lynn and other church officials.
Bergstrom had also challenged that evidence on appeal, calling it unfair.
The Superior Court never addressed that concern or other alleged trial errors, concluding the charges themselves were flawed because Lynn was charged under an endangerment law adopted after he left his church post.
“This whole prosecution, it was absolutely founded on dishonesty,” Bergstrom said. Prosecutors knew that the revised statute didn’t apply to Lynn, “and they went ahead anyway. … And now the Superior Court has told them (so).”
The Philadelphia Archdiocese’s communications office was closed for the Christmas holiday. A spokesman did not immediately return a message left on his cellphone.