Thursday, August 21, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Monsignor William Lynn conviction overturned by Pa. court; D.A. 'most likely' to appeal

FILE - Msgr. William J. Lynn leaves the Criminal Justice Center after testifying in a sex-abuse trial on Wednesday, May 23, 2012. The criminal case against Lynn was dismissed Thursday. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )
FILE - Msgr. William J. Lynn leaves the Criminal Justice Center after testifying in a sex-abuse trial on Wednesday, May 23, 2012. The criminal case against Lynn was dismissed Thursday. ( Yong Kim / Staff Photographer )

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said he will most likely appeal the Superior Court's reversal Thursday of the conviction of Monsignor William Lynn.

"I am disappointed and strongly disagree with the court's decision," Williams said in a statement. "While we are deciding what our next course of action will be, we most likely will be appealing this decision."

Lynn from 1992 to 2004 served as the secretary for clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and was tasked with handling child sex abuse complaints. He was in June 2012 found guilty of felony child endangerment for covering up sex abuse claims brought against Catholic priests by reshuffling the accused to other parishes.

The Associated Press first reported the court's reversal.

Lynn's attorney Thomas Bergstrom on Thursday called Williams' likely appeal "a fool's errand."

"The court was very clear and very adamant that the statute didn't apply to [Lynn] and he was wrongfully, wrongfully convicted," Bergstrom said. "Williams has the prerogative to appeal and if he does, we'll be right behind him."

Bergstrom had long been arguing Lynn was not classified under the law as someone who had direct control or supervision over the children who were abused. Therefore, he said, Lynn should never have been prosecuted for allegedly putting them in harm's way.

"Unfortunately, it fell on deaf ears until now," Bergstrom said. "The Superior Court followed years of their own precedent and found, as we've argued, that the statute didn't apply to him, at all. It's a crime he cannot commit and didn't commit."

Pending some paperwork, Bergstrom said Lynn could be released from prison as soon as Friday.

"Unfortunately, [Lynn] had to spend 18 months in prison for a crime he didn't commit and couldn't commit," the attorney said.

Lynn was at the time the first U.S. church official criminally convicted for charges stemming covering up sex abuse claims. The case was hailed as a landmark when it came to holding large institutions accountable for such oversight. Lynn is now 18 months into a 3 to 6 year prison sentence.

David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said in a statement that the decision, if it stands, will make it even harder for abuse victims "to find the courage and strength to report to law enforcement."

"Once again, another high-ranking Catholic official who repeatedly endangered kids and enabled predators is escaping punishment," Clohessy said. "We are heart-sick over this decision and we applaud prosecutors for appealing it. We know thousands of betrayed Catholics and wounded victims will be disheartened by this news. This ruling gives corrupt Catholic officials encouragement to continue deceiving police, stonewalling prosecutors, ignoring victims, destroying evidence, fabricating alibis, hiding crimes and protecting pedophiles."

The charges against Lynn stemmed from the case of former priest Edward Avery, who is serving a 2 1/2 to 5 year prison sentence for sexually assaulting an altar boy. Lynn admitted during his trial that he fielded a complaint in the 1990s that Avery had sexually abused an altar boy. Instead of removing Avery from ministry, Lynn recommended he be sent to a rehabilitation hospital. Lynn several years later reassigned Avery to work at a parish where he again sexually assaulted an altar boy.   

Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Teresa Sarmina said during Lynn's sentencing last year that he used his role as a church official to shield "monsters in garb."

“You knew full well what was right, Monsignor Lynn, but you chose wrong,” she said.

But a three-judge Superior Court panel unanimously overturned Sarmina's decision, finding the state's child-endangerment law at the time of Lynn's conviction applied to parents and caregivers but did not extend to institutional supervisors.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said in a statement that church officials "expressed a hope that the nature of the sentence imposed on Monsignor Lynn would be objectively reviewed" and believe "that has happened."

Archdiocesan officials claim they have since the events that prompted Lynn's trial made dramatic changes to ensure the safety of young church members. 

"The decision by the Superior Court to overturn this conviction does not and will not alter the Church’s commitment to assist and support the survivors of sexual abuse on their journey toward healing or our dedicated efforts to ensure that all young people in our care are safe," the statement said.

Officials said the church has committed to immediately notifying law enforcement when any sex abuse allegations involving minors are made, to providing abuse survivors with resources and to restoring the public's trust in the institution.

"The reputation of the Church can only be rebuilt through transparency, honesty and a fulfillment of our responsibility to the young people in our care and the victims and survivors who need our support," the statement read. "We recognize that today’s news is especially difficult for survivors and their families. We profoundly regret their pain."

Alex Wigglesworth For Philly.com
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