PHILADELPHIA — Msgr. William Lynn, the 61-year-old Philadelphia priest at the center of a landmark sexual-abuse court case, was sentenced to three-six years in prison for his role in the archdiocese-wide scandal.
The July 24 sentence drew criticism from the defendant’s lawyer as extreme. It is close to the maximum three and a half to seven years requested by Philadelphia’s District Attorney Seth Williams. Both Msgr. Lynn’s attorney, Thomas Bergstrom, and a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said they thought the sentence was too harsh.
A jury June 22 found Msgr. Lynn guilty on one of two counts of child endangerment for knowingly placing minors in danger when he reassigned troubled priests to parishes where they would have access to children.
The archdiocese released a statement, saying in part, “Fair-minded people will question the severity of the heavy, three- to six-year sentence imposed on Msgr. Lynn. We hope that when this punishment is objectively reviewed, it will be adjusted.”
Bergstrom told the Register he planned to file an appeal.
Defense attorney Jeff Lindy told the Register that the sentence was “too harsh” and pointed out that now-defrocked priest Edward Avery was sentenced to less time than Msgr. Lynn. Avery is serving a two and a half- to
five-year sentence for sexually assaulting an altar boy in church in 1999. “That doesn’t seem like justice,” said Lindy.
On top of the sentence, the judge in the case, Judge Teresa Sarmina, reportedly had some strong words for Msgr. Lynn, saying that he — the former secretary for clergy in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia — had supported “monsters in clerical garb.”
Charles Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University, said the strict sentencing sends a strong message to the Church. He said the days of “protecting the institution over the individual” must be done away with.
“Clearly, this signals that the court takes this kind of case very seriously,” he said. “The defense that ‘I was only following orders’ is not going to work in the future.”
He said he believed that because of this case, “in the future priests in Msgr. Lynn’s position are going to be careful about a paper trail. They’re going to make sure they’re not culpable. It really will change the relation of the clergy with the bishop.”
Msgr. Lynn reportedly told the judge that he was sorry for his “failings” during the 12 years he managed priests’ assignments and investigated clergy sex-abuse reports for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He repeated a claim he made during his trial: that he did his best as clergy secretary.
“But the fact is, my best was not good enough — and for that I'm truly sorry,” he told the judge.
Dispute Over Sentence
Under state guidelines, Msgr. Lynn will have to serve at least three years before becoming eligible for parole.
Tasha Jamerson, director of communications for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, said DA Seth Williams was “very happy” with the sentence.
She said she hopes the case is precedent-setting: “Given this verdict, it may make other people pause and perhaps put the interests of the individuals over the institutions. That’s the ultimate goal.”
The archdiocese, in its statement, is saying that this lesson has already been learned.
“The public humiliation of the Church has emphasized the vital lesson that we must be constantly vigilant in our charge to protect the children in our parishes and schools. Since the events some 10 years ago that were at the center of this trial, the archdiocese has changed,” the statement said. “We have taken dramatic steps to ensure that all young people in our care are safe, and these efforts will continue even more forcefully now and in the years ahead. We remain committed to protecting children and caring for victims.”
Matthew Archbold writes from Philadelphia. He blogs at NCRegister.com.