Pennsylvania’s Superior Court has reversed the endangering children conviction of Monsignor William Lynn, and his lawyer hopes to have him out of prison by tomorrow.
Although never accused of touching a child, Lynn, when he was convicted in June 2012, became the first member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the United States convicted of shielding a priest who molested a minor.
In a 43-page opinion released this afternoon, Superior Court judges wrote they “determined the evidence was not sufficient to support [Lynn’s] conviction for endangering the welfare of a child … We are compelled to reverse [Lynn’s] judgment of sentence.”
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, who had called Lynn’s conviction historic, today said he disagrees with the appellate court’s opinion and likely will appeal the decision.
The DA’s spokeswoman, Tasha Jamerson, said Lynn won’t be leaving prison since the Superior Court decision will be appealed, but Lynn’s attorney, Thomas Bergstrom, said the court ordered the monsignor discharged.
“We hope to have him out tomorrow,” he said in a phone interview this afternoon.
If the District Attorney’s office appeals the decision, Bergstrom said, it will lose. “I think it would be a fool’s errand,” he said.
The monsignor has been serving a three-to-six-year prison sentence imposed by Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina.
Bergstrom had maintained state law didn’t apply to Lynn’s case and that Lynn, who served the archdiocese as secretary of clergy for 12 years, never made the final decision to assign Edward Avery to St. Jerome’s parish, where the molestation took place in the late 1990s. That decision was made by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Bergstrom said during Lynn’s three-month trial in 2012.
Prosecutors, however, had maintained Lynn, who investigated and ordered treatment for sexually abusive priests, kept Avery, now defrocked, in a ministry that would put him in proximity to children even though he knew he was dangerous to children.
Lynn, Avery, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, the Rev. James Brennan and parochial school teacher Bernard Shero were arrested in February 2011 after a Philadelphia grand jury released a report on sexual abuse by the city’s clergy.
Avery, Engelhardt and Shero all had been charged with molesting the same St. Jerome’s pupil. Brennan had been accused of molesting a Bucks County youth. All of the alleged crimes had occurred in the 1990s.
Prosecutors alleged Lynn had conspired with Avery, Engelhardt and Brennan to keep them in ministry that would give them access to children.
The defendant’s lawyers argued that there was no conspiracy and requested separate trials for the men. Engelhardt and Shero’s cases were separated from the other three, but they wound up being tried together early this year. Shero, who was not a priest and not under any direct supervision by Lynn, was not tried for conspiracy.
Lynn was to go on trial with Avery and Brennan, but Avery pleaded guilty to a molestation charge before the trial was to begin in March 2012.
Jurors in the Lynn-Brennan trial listened to weeks of evidence of how the Philadelphia archdiocese handled child-molestation allegations against its priests before hearing testimony from the victims. Bergstrom maintained before, during and after the trial that admission of that evidence was improper.
Jurors couldn’t reach a verdict on Brennan, and he is yet to be retried. They found Lynn innocent of one count of conspiracy and one endangering children charge, but found him guilty of the lone endangerment charge.
Earlier this year, jurors found Engelhardt and Shero guilty of several charges related to their molestation of the same boy who had accused Avery. That victim testified at their trial.
Avery, in prison garb, testified, too, claiming he had not molested that boy and denied even knowing him. He said he pleaded guilty so he could get a reduced sentence because he didn’t want to die in prison. He currently is serving a 2½-to-5-year term.
Common Pleas Court Judge Ellen Ceisler in June sentenced Engelhardt to a minimum of six years in prison. He was sentenced to 3½ years to seven years for endangering the welfare of a child and 2½ years to seven years for indecent assault on a child. Ceisler ordered the sentences to be served consecutively.
Shero was sentenced to eight to 16 years for rape and given the same sentence for his conviction on indecent assault charges. The judge ordered the sentences to be served concurrently.
In addition, Shero was ordered to serve a sentence of 3½ years to seven years in prison for endangering the welfare of a child, to be served consecutive to the first sentences.
Both men were ordered to serve five years on probation after release from prison. They are appealing their convictions.
Michael McGovern, Engelhardt’s attorney, today told the Northeast Times he expected the reversal of Lynn’s conviction would be helpful to his client’s case.
He said the District Attorney’s office has been dealt a staggering blow.
“I am optimistic that the appellate court will see through the DA’s wrongful prosecution of other innocent defendants, Father Charles Engelhardt, my client, and Mr. Bernard Shero.”
The decision, understandably buoying to defense attorneys, was disheartening to members of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Many SNAP members attended Lynn’s trial.
“Once again, another high-ranking Catholic official who repeatedly endangered kids and enabled predators is escaping punishment.
“We are heart-sick over this decision and we applaud prosecutors for appealing it,” aid David Clohessy of St. Louis, SNAP, director.
“This ruling gives corrupt Catholic officials encouragement to continue deceiving police, stonewalling prosecutors, ignoring victims, destroying evidence, fabricating alibis, hiding crimes, and protecting pedophiles,” Clohessy continued. “If kids are to be safer, we need to hold employers more responsible, not less responsible, for putting innocent children in harm’s way. It’s already very hard for victims to find the courage and strength to report to law enforcement. This decision, if it stands, will make it even harder.”
Susan Matthews, writing on catholics4change.com, said the court’s decision will not relieve Lynn of moral or ethical guilt.
Lynn might go free, she wrote, but how the archdiocese handled child-molestation allegations is now well-known because of his trial.
“The memos and letters [which were read during Lynn’s trial] proved the archdiocese covered up clergy child sex abuse with the knowledge of many Church administrators, including Lynn,” Matthews wrote. “Whether or not Lynn sits in jail, the world knows what happened in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.”
In a statement released this afternoon, the archdiocese said, “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.”
The archdiocese said it is committed to immediately reporting any allegation of sexual abuse involving a minor to law enforcement.
“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. … We recognize that today’s news is especially difficult for survivors and their families. We profoundly regret their pain.” ••