The highest ranking official of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia convicted of a crime in connection with the sexual abuse scandal of recent years may soon walk free from prison.
A three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the conviction of Msgr. William Lynn Dec. 26. The former secretary for clergy of the archdiocese was convicted on one count of endangering the welfare of a child in June 2012.
The priest has spent the past 18 months, almost to the day, in Waymart state prison in Northeastern Pennsylvania, where he was serving a three-to-six year term.
“The decision by the Superior Court to overturn this conviction,” read a statement by the Philadelphia Archdiocese, “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 recognized the decision may be “especially difficult for survivors and their families. We profoundly regret their pain.”
Last year’s sensational trial represented the first time a high level diocesan administrator faced a criminal charge in the clergy sexual abuse crisis that exploded across the United States in 2002.
In Msgr. Lynn’s case, a jury found him guilty of endangering the welfare of a child in the case of a boy molested by former priest Edward Avery, who pleaded guilty to the crime and is serving time.
Msgr. Lynn’s role as secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004 included supervising archdiocesan priests. He was convicted on the state prosecutors’ charge that he was guilty of child endangerment for failing to prevent Avery from sexually assaulting an unnamed boy in 1998 at St. Jerome Parish in Northeast Philadelphia when Avery resided there, with his assignment as chaplain to nearby Nazareth Hospital.
The charge referred to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Endangering the Welfare of a Child (EWOC) statute. Before 2007 the law held responsible for criminal penalty “a parent, guardian or other person supervising a child.” But the law was amended in 2007 to include “a person that employs or supervises” the parent or direct supervisor – in other words, the statute covered the supervisor of a child, Avery, and his supervisor, Msgr. Lynn.
The defense team for Msgr. Lynn maintained from its opening arguments and throughout the three-month trial that the charge should not apply to their client because he no longer worked as secretary for clergy by the time the law was amended. Msgr. Lynn was replaced in his role in 2004.
Prosecutors argued the pre-2007 statute still should be interpreted broadly to include Msgr. Lynn, and trial court Judge Teresa M. Sarmina agreed.
In a 43-page opinion representing the appeals court’s unanimous decision to reverse the conviction, Judge Joseph D. Seletyn cited only the first two of 10 provisions of Msgr. Lynn’s appeal in reaching a decision.
The first – whether Msgr. Lynn should be considered a “principal actor” in endangering the welfare of a child — addressed the main issue of whether a statute amended in 2007 could be applied to the priest’s actions that occurred years earlier.
It could not, the judge wrote.
“Given the pre-2007 time frame of appellant’s (Msgr. Lynn’s) conduct, the amended statute is not applicable in this case,” Seletyn wrote.
The opinion also covered the second point of the appeal, whether Msgr. Lynn was an accomplice in the crime. There was no evidence that Msgr. Lynn knew of the victim of sexual abuse at St. Jerome’s or that he conspired with Avery’s plans to abuse the boy, the panel concluded.
“In sum, the evidence was insufficient to demonstrate that (Msgr. Lynn) acted with the ‘intent of promoting or facilitating’ an EWOC offense” committed by Avery, the judge wrote.
“Having determined that the evidence was not sufficient to support (Msgr. Lynn’s) conviction for EWOC either as a principal or as an accomplice, we are compelled to reverse appellant’s judgment of sentence,” Seletyn wrote.
“And, as there are no other offenses for which he was convicted in this case, appellant is ordered discharged forthwith.”
In published reports Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams vowed to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court, though he did not indicate when.
Msgr. Lynn remains incarcerated at Waymart and it is unclear if he will remain there until the conclusion of Williams’ appeal or will be released on bail sooner.
Regardless, a major chapter of the scandal that delivered a body blow to the morale of Catholics throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and beyond appears to have entered a new phase.
The Seletyn opinion acknowledged one of the prosecutors’ central claims, which formed the main thrust of a Philadelphia Grand Jury’s reports in 2005 and 2011: that for decades archdiocesan administrators at the highest levels dealt poorly with child sexual assault by some clergy; and that administrators such as Msgr. Lynn appeared to prioritize the “disrepute” of the church over safeguarding children in the church.
But he wrote this was not the issue in the Msgr. Lynn case. Rather, the priest could not be charged, tried and convicted for his actions not to remove priests before they abused children according to a law written after the time in which he served.
The Philadelphia Archdiocese, for its part, said in a statement that it has “changed dramatically” since the scandal erupted in 2002 and the U.S. bishops’ adoption of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.”
The archdiocese also said “dramatic steps have been taken to ensure that all young people in our care find a safe and nurturing environment.”
“Our path forward is to remain vigilant in our efforts now and in the years to come,” the statement read. “This path includes providing resources and support to survivors, our commitment to immediately report any allegation of sexual abuse involving a minor to law enforcement and restoring the trust of the faithful and all those who look to the Church as a beacon of God’s promise and love.
“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.”
Per its practice whenever news from the fall out of the crisis emerges, the archdiocese offered its resources to the community.
Anyone wishing to report an allegation of sexual abuse should contact a local law enforcement agency and the archdiocesan Office for Investigations at 1-888-930-9010.
To report a violation of the archdiocese’s code of conduct for church personnel and volunteers, “The Standards of Ministerial Behavior and Boundaries,” contact the Office for Investigations at 1-888-930-9010.
Victims of sexual violence may seek support or assistance, victim services and referrals through the archdiocesan Victim Assistance Office at 1-888-800-8780 or firstname.lastname@example.org.