Last year, when a Pennsylvania jury convicted Msgr William Lynn of the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia to prison for his role in a child sex abuse cover-up, reader Mike Ehling wrote to me:
I’m an ex-Catholic, and I have no desire to defend a paternalistic hierarchy, and Lynn is no one I would ever want to hire as a personnel director, but I have a very real concern that….
(1) Judge Sarmina was just wa-a-ay too pro-prosecution.
(2) Lynn was being held to the standards of 2012 for his actions from 1992 to 2004, at a time when “one-strike” policies were simply not that prevalent and rehabilitation was seen as more of an option.
(3) Lynn was not a “mandatory reporter” under Pennsylvania law (blame the Pennsylvania legislature for this if you like), so he had no legal obligation (whatever moral obligation you might assert) to report suspected instances of child abuse to the police.
(4) Lynn had (in my view) the right to give a suspected priest the benefit of the doubt and aim for treatment rather than prosecution. Note that I’m not saying Lynn should have done this, only that I don’t think that his having done so is so outrageous as to justify criminal (as opposed to civil monetary) liability.
The real problem, I think, is that clergy in general make lousy personnel directors. Clergy are trained in a “helping” profession, while personnel directors often find themselves in the “enforcement” role. My reading of this case is that Lynn was a well-meaning priest who was trying to do right but who was in wa-a-ay over his head. Moreover, note that Cardinal Bevilacqua was not just Lynn’s boss and an important member of the hierarchy but that he was also a civil lawyer, with a degree from St. John’s University Law School in Queens, New York, which gives added emphasis to directions he gave to Lynn.
Lynn’s been convicted for applying a treatment rather than a punitive approach to suspected priests. Agree or disagree as to treatment versus punishment, the issue is (or at least a decade or more ago was) sufficiently debatable that Lynn shouldn’t be held criminally responsible for poor judgment in a job as a personnel director that, like most priests, he was probably ill-equipped for.
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said he will most likely appeal the Superior Court’s reversal Thursday of the conviction of Monsignor William Lynn.
“I am disappointed and strongly disagree with the court’s decision,” Williams said in a statement. “While we are deciding what our next course of action will be, we most likely will be appealing this decision.”
Lynn from 1992 to 2004 served as the secretary for clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and was tasked with handling child sex abuse complaints. He was in June 2012 found guilty of felony child endangerment for covering up sex abuse claims brought against Catholic priests by reshuffling the accused to other parishes.
The Associated Press first reported the court’s reversal.
Lynn’s attorney Thomas Bergstrom on Thursday called Williams’ likely appeal “a fool’s errand.”
“The court was very clear and very adamant that the statute didn’t apply to [Lynn] and he was wrongfully, wrongfully convicted,” Bergstrom said. “Williams has the prerogative to appeal and if he does, we’ll be right behind him.”
I recall when I lived in Philly, being appalled by news that priests of the archdiocese had applauded Lynn at a clerical gathering. There they go, circling the wagons, I thought. But an informed Catholic friend told me that the applause was because many priests knew that Msgr. Lynn was merely the fall guy for Cardinal Bevilacqua. Who is now dead, and beyond justice. Earthly justice, at least.