The landmark child-endangerment conviction of Msgr. William J. Lynn – the first Catholic Church official found guilty for his role supervising priests in the clergy sex-abuse scandal – was reinstated Monday by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.
Writing for the 4-1 majority of the state’s high court, Justice Max Baer said Superior Court erred when it reversed Lynn’s conviction because he did not directly supervise children.
At issue was whether a 2007 amendment to the child-endangerment statute, which specifically included supervisory personnel as open to criminal culpability, expanded the original 1995 law or simply clarified it. If the amendments just expanded the law, Lynn would have been unconstitutionally convicted for acts that predated the amendments.
Baer wrote that precedent supports a broad interpretation: “That which is supervised is the child’s welfare. Under the facts presented at trial, [Lynn] was a person supervising the welfare of many children because, as a high-ranking official in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, he was specifically responsible for protecting children from sexually abusive priests.”
Chief Justice Thomas G. Saylor dissented, endorsing a strict interpretation of the 1995 statute.
“The evidence viewed favorably to the commonwealth suggests that [Lynn] is indeed guilty of gross derelictions which caused widespread harm,” Saylor wrote. “The only question before the court, however, is whether the text of the endangerment statute, as it existed in the pre-amendment time frame, allowed the imposition of criminal culpability. . . . I would find that it did not.”
Former Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, who retired after last November’s oral arguments before the court, did not participate in the decision. There is one vacancy on the court.
“It’s very disappointing,” said defense attorney Thomas A. Bergstrom, who defended the 64-year-old former secretary for clergy on behalf of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Bergstrom said it was too early to say what impact the ruling would have on Lynn’s immediate future.
On Jan. 2, 2014, days after Superior Court reversed his conviction, Lynn was freed from his three- to six-year prison term after about 15 months behind bars and allowed to live on house arrest in the rectory of St. William, a parish in Lawncrest in the Northeast.
Bergstrom said he hoped Lynn would be permitted to remain free on $250,000 bail pending further appeals.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, whose office appealed the Superior Court ruling, released a statement applauding the Supreme Court decision.
Williams thanked the “brave victims who testified in court and their families for supporting them. Today’s announcement sends the clear message that if anyone – priest, lay person, citizen, police officer, or elected official – knowingly puts children at risk of being sexually molested, they will be held accountable.”
The decision was also celebrated by advocates for clergy sex-abuse victims.
“It is a victory for parents, parishioners, churchgoers, wounded victims, and innocent kids each time corrupt church staffers are disciplined,” said David Clohessy, director of the St. Louis-based SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.
Marci A. Hamilton, a Philadelphia-area lawyer who has sued the Catholic Church on behalf of victims of clergy sex-abuse, praised the District Attorney’s Office and called the Lynn case “the most significant criminal prosecution of any Catholic official for the endangerment of numerous children in an archdiocese.”
As the secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, Lynn was responsible for investigating sex-abuse complaints made against priests and recommending punishment to the archbishop.
In 2012, after a 13-week trial and 12 days of deliberations, a Common Pleas Court jury found that Lynn allowed the Rev. Edward V. Avery, who had a history of sexually abusing children, to live in a Northeast rectory, where he later assaulted a 10-year-old altar boy. Avery pleaded guilty in the 1999 attack and is serving five years in prison.
Bergstrom said the decision means that Lynn was found guilty of “endangering a child without even knowing the child existed. He didn’t learn about it until 2009.”
Bergstrom said he and Lynn have 14 days to decide whether to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider the appeal.
There are other possible avenues of appeal, Bergstrom said. He said they could petition the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal based on Lynn’s contention that the prosecution violated his constitutional right not to be tried for alleged crimes that predated the 2007 amendments to the child endangerment statute. Bergstrom said they could also raise before Superior Court issues that the court did not consider before reversing Lynn’s conviction in December 2013.
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