PHILADELPHIA — A Philadelphia Superior Court has overturned the conviction of Msgr. William Lynn, who was convicted and sent to prison as a felon for his role in reassigning a priest with a history of sexually abusing a minor.
A three-judge panel ruled Dec. 26 that Msgr. Lynn, who served from 1992 to 2004 as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s secretary for clergy, was wrongfully convicted on felony child-endangerment charges. Lynn was the first U.S. Catholic official to be convicted of a crime over his handling of sexual-abuse allegations.
Msgr. Lynn has been serving a three-to-six-year prison sentence, after being found guilty in June 2012 of felony child endangerment for his role in handling allegations of sexual abuse against former priest Edward Avery. Avery is serving two and a half to five years in prison for involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and conspiracy to endanger the welfare of a child — known as "Billy Doe" — in 1998.
Philadelphia District Attorney R. Seth Williams had argued that Msgr. Lynn was guilty of child endangerment because he knew in 1992 that Avery had sexually abused a minor. The court noted in its decision that Avery had undergone treatment for alcoholism (then believed as the reason for the sexual abuse) and received a psychological evaluation. He was later reassigned by Msgr. Lynn to a hospital chaplaincy and restricted from contact with minors. However, Avery was living at St. Jerome’s parish and was recruited to help out with Masses there, where the former priest targeted Billy Doe, after discovering that another priest was sexually abusing the boy.
But the Superior Court reversed Msgr. Lynn’s conviction in a 43-page decision, on the basis that he could not be held criminally liable, either as a principal or an accomplice, under the state’s 1972 child-endangerment laws.
The law had previously stated that "a parent, guardian or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age commits an offense if he knowingly endangers the welfare of the child by violating a duty of care, protection or support."
Lawmakers revised the law in 2006 to include "a person that employs or supervises such a person" after a 2005 grand-jury report found that archdiocesan officials, including Msgr. Lynn, were unable to be criminally prosecuted for their roles in shuffling predator priests under the existing laws.
The Superior Court said it "cannot dispute" the district attorney "presented more than adequate evidence to sufficiently demonstrate that [Msgr. Lynn] prioritized the archdiocese’s reputation over the safety of potential victims of sexually abusive priests."
However, it ruled that the revised statute did not apply in Msgr. Lynn’s case and that the district attorney did not provide the evidence required to prove that Msgr. Lynn was guilty of a crime under the pre-updated child-endangerment statutes.
The court stated there was not "sufficient evidence" to prove that Msgr. Lynn "intended to promote or facilitate" Avery’s preying upon children at St. Jerome’s parish. It also added that the district attorney had not proved Msgr. Lynn "explicitly or implicitly approved of Avery’s supervision of minors at St. Jerome’s" in order for him to be found guilty as an accomplice.
District Attorney Williams may soon be appealing the court’s decision, according to a statement provided to the Register.
"I am disappointed and strongly disagree with the court’s decision," Williams said. "While we are deciding what our next course of action will be, we most likely will be appealing this decision."
In a news release, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia stated that the news of Msgr. Lynn’s conviction being overturned "is especially difficult for survivors and their families. We profoundly regret their pain."
According to the statement, the archdiocese had asked for "an objective review" of Msgr. Lynn’s sentence, but noted that "dramatic steps have been taken to ensure that all young people in our care find a safe and nurturing environment."
"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," it stated.
The statement added, "Our path forward is to remain vigilant in our efforts now and in the years to come. 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."