The landmark trial of Msgr. William Lynn, the first high-ranking American Catholic churchman convicted of a crime in connection with the clergy sexual abuse scandal, will play out again as Pennsylvania Superior Court threw out his July 2012 conviction and ordered a new trial Dec. 22.
The three-judge panel said in its 43-page split opinion that original trial Judge Teresa Sarmina erred by admitting evidence of sexual abuse of minors by priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in the years before Msgr. Lynn served as secretary for archdiocesan clergy from 1992 to 2004.
In that role he oversaw priests assigned by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua to ministry in archdiocesan parishes, schools and institutions. Evidence presented at the three-month trial documented the abuse of minors by some of those priests over the course of many years.
Prosecutors presented evidence to argue that Msgr. Lynn endangered the welfare of a boy by failing to supervise his attacker, former priest Edward Avery.
Msgr. Lynn convicted after the three-month trial under the state’s child endangerment statute and sentenced to three to six years in prison.
In its opinion last week, the Superior Court said the Court of Common Pleas under Judge Sarmina “abused its discretion by admitting a high volume of unfairly prejudicial other-acts evidence.”
The trial court argued there was value in presenting evidence of a history of abuse in the archdiocese and church administrators’ practice of transferring abusive priests to other assignments.
The “probative value” of the evidence was intended to shed light on Msgr. Lynn’s mindset as secretary for clergy, and that he continued to follow past practice of recommending abusive priests for new assignments.
The Superior Court disagreed in the value of such evidence.
“A substantial volume of this evidence concerned the bad acts of priests, and the archdiocese’s response thereto, that predated (Msgr. Lynn’s) tenure as secretary by many years, and in some cases, decades,” the opinion read.
The panel argued that the “vast quantity” of evidence prior to 1992 unfairly prejudiced the 12-person jury that convicted Msgr. Lynn on one count of child endangerment under state law.
Although his conviction now has been overturned, the 64-year-old priest remains in custody at the state’s Waymart Correctional Facility in northeast Pennsylvania.
No new trial date or presiding judge has been indicated, though Msgr. Lynn’s defense attorney Thomas Bergstrom has requested in a legal filing for an alternative to Judge Sarmina, according to a published report.
He has also sought to have his client freed on bail.
Msgr. Lynn has already served about half of his sentence.
Avery admitted to the crime of abusing an altar boy in 1999 on the eve of his trial in 2012 and is currently serving his five-year sentence.