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The Msgr. Lynn Case: A Reader Told Me So

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 [1]:

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.

Well, he was right: [2]

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.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "The Msgr. Lynn Case: A Reader Told Me So"

#1 Comment By Uncle Billy On December 27, 2013 @ 3:41 pm

Lynn does appear to be the fall guy, so perhaps it is justice for him to have the conviction overturned and be released. That being said, the damage is done. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been embarassed and should probably avoid trying to tell married couples what they can do in their bedrooms and crusading against gays. Focus on helping the poor, issues of war and peace, and knock off trying to be sexual policemen, at least for a while.

The smarter Bishops understand this, but then under JP II and Benedict, intelligence was not the primary criteria for promotion. Fanaticism, especially on sexual matters trumped everything, and now we are seeing how very, very stupid this policy was.

Francis, being a Jesuit understands this, and hopefully, the American Bishops will get it and shift gears.

#2 Comment By j. r. mc..Faul On December 27, 2013 @ 3:45 pm

“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.”

Very true. A good leader would recongnize this, but clergy on the whole are poor leaders, too.

#3 Comment By C. L. H. Daniels On December 27, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

If anyone should be tried, it should certainly be those who were higher in the hierarchy. They are the ones who set the tone for the Church’s cover up.

#4 Comment By Sister Maureen Paul Turlish On December 27, 2013 @ 5:33 pm

Rod Dreher, Yes,I remember the occasion you referred to in your last paragraph. My problem with Lynn is that he is an adult, mature, well education man who made a conscious decision to put the well being of the institutional church before the physical, mental and spiritual well being of God’s children whom the Lord speaks about very clearly. It would appear that he betrayed his conscience and sold his soul for the upward mobility of the clerical fast track in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

There must have been some point in all those years when the Light of the Lord finally broke through. Could he possibly have been so brainwashed?

Hard to believe. SM

Sister to Pope: Tackle the Scandal

Philadelphia Daily News
December 24, 2013

POPE FRANCIS has been in the news recently due to his removal of more than a dozen cardinals from the Congregation of Bishops and his appointment of others.

American Cardinals Burke and Rigali are in the former group, while Cardinal Wuerl, of Washington, D.C., is in the latter.

In the news as well is a notice that the pope has decided that cardinals will begin hearing confessions regularly at churches around Rome.

As important and interesting as such announcements may be to some, should they really be paramount in people’s minds?

First things first:

Will Pope Francis address the single-most critical issue facing the Catholic Church today, which is the continuing clerical sex-abuse scandal?

Given the description of the pope’s papal commission on clerical child abuse, especially coming after a United Nations panel criticized the Vatican over its handling of abuse cases, with the Vatican saying that the responsibility for such cases rested with individual bishops, expectations on such a significant level have been decidedly mixed.

Pope Francis’ words establishing this new commission in the church’s central bureaucracy would be commendable if at the same time he announced plans for disciplining and/or the removal from church offices of those bishops who, by the abuse of their episcopal authority, were complicit in the sexual abuse of thousands of children in the United States alone.

Overseas, in the Netherlands, Dutch bishops have recently acknowledged the abuse of tens of thousands of children, according to a Reuters article.

Perhaps Pope Francis has decided to go the distance with this commission, but if Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley’s statements are accurate, the pope’s creation of such a committee appears to be more along the lines of putting the cart before the horse than anything else.

Any way one looks at it there is really no way to avoid an issue which, if not finally addressed in its totality, will result in even further public-relations fallout for the Catholic Church worldwide.

Remember that diocesan bishops, their underlings, along with the provincials and superiors of religious congregations, created this horrific scandal by protecting known clerical sexual predators with essentially no regard for the Lord’s little ones, leaving these lambs unprotected before ravaging wolves.

“The new commission is expected to tell church officials to collaborate with civil authorities and report cases of abuse,” O’Malley said.

Is this a decision that calls for a papal commission? No, not to my thinking.

The hierarchy has already exhausted its credibility and moral authority by its flawed response to this scandal over past decades, and neither will be regained by having the ecclesiastical body responsible for covering up that scandal charged with either its evaluation or correction.

That has not worked well since 2002.

Moreover, statements like those quoted above appear ludicrous given the nature of such heinous violations: crimes against the humanity of children.

Sister Maureen Paul Turlish
New Castle, Delaware

#5 Comment By James C. On December 27, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

“The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been embarassed and should probably avoid trying to tell married couples what they can do in their bedrooms and crusading against gays.”

Non-sequitur. Certain people still operate under the nonsense presumption that Church teachings are personal policy positions held by idiosyncratic bishops, and that these positions stand or fall on the bishops’ behavior.

Some logic for you: Rather than demanding the Church approve of your favorite behaviors, just go ahead and knock yourself out. If the Church is a fallible, man-made, quasi-political organization as you seem to believe it to be, then there won’t be any eternal consequences to worry about.

The rest of us will strive to hold more perfectly both ourselves and our bishops to all of the moral standards set down by our Lord and his church.

#6 Comment By ck On December 27, 2013 @ 6:46 pm

“The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has been embarassed and should probably avoid trying to tell married couples what they can do in their bedrooms and crusading against gays.”

Ha, non sequitur, if the rules of reason still apply.

#7 Comment By William Dalton On December 27, 2013 @ 6:56 pm

The Lynn case is far bigger than that of determining the fate of one clergyman, or even the policing of child sexual abuse. There is nothing that is more of a clerical function, that goes to the heart of church administration, than is the assignment of priests to parishes, of determining who gets the job of preaching and pastoral care among the congregations of any church body. If the State can interfere in these decisions, to the point of putting bishops and presbyters in prison if they don’t do the job to the state’s liking, we have surrendered the government of the Church to the State, and we will be Erastians all. Forget about the First Amendment and the Doctrine of Separation.

#8 Comment By Myron Hudson On December 27, 2013 @ 7:57 pm

“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.”

Agreed. And how many times in our lives does that, priest or not, apply to each of us?

#9 Comment By David J. White On December 27, 2013 @ 8:14 pm

If anyone should be tried, it should certainly be those who were higher in the hierarchy. They are the ones who set the tone for the Church’s cover up.

And the sky is blue, and water is wet. That’s how institutions work. For good or ill, human civilization needs institutions to function and survive, but all institutions develop the overriding desire to protect themselves, and the main mission of the people at the top too often becomes CYA, and they are too often willing to sacrifice people further down the food chain to accomplish this.

But it’s not as if the Church or other religious institutions are alone in this. After all, in the military’s Abu Ghraib prison scandal, how many people above the rank of sergeant were prosecuted for that? Not many, as I recall.

#10 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 27, 2013 @ 8:54 pm

After reading the NY Times article on the appellate decision (although I have not read the actual decision), I tend to agree that there was no criminal violation. What Lynn did may be a violation of a revised statute, adopted by the legislature after Lynn’s trial, but at minimum, any criminal statute must inform each and every person with some particularity what actions will result in criminal penalties. Lynn’s actions simply did not meet the criteria for criminal child endangerment as set forth in the laws then on the books.

I’m not sure they should even now. I’m leery of CRIMINAL prosecution for vicariously contributing to someone else’s crime by putting them in a position where they could commit it, without intent that they do so. Its too much like charging parents, criminally OR civilly, for not raising their children right, if the offspring commits a violent crime.

I live in a state where it is technically against the law to refuse to hire someone, or to fire them, over a criminal conviction. There are lots of ways to get around the law, but it makes sense to the extent it can be enforced. If we expect people to live a law abiding life, they have to be able to earn an honest living. But, if your crime was embezzlement, a bank may legally decline to hire you — and on that basis, a priest with a history of abuse should not be overseeing children.

But that’s poor judgement, maybe even a civil tort, its not ipso facto criminal complicity. The prosecutor is trying to bluster about how bad the outcome of Lynn’s decisions were, as if that makes prosecution justifiable. His grandstanding reminds me of Senator Herb Kohl’s response to the Supreme Court’s decision in the Lopez case, which threw out a federal statute prohibiting carrying a gun in or near a school.

Kohl blustered that it was a bad decision because guns in schools is a serious crime. The court never said its not. The court said congress is granted no general criminal jurisdiction by the constitution, and “affecting interstate commerce” couldn’t be stretched so far as to implicitly create one. Actually, every state has laws about carrying guns in or near schools. Those laws carry stiff penalties. Texas was ready to prosecute Mr. Lopez, but the feds wanted to get their hands on the case.

#11 Comment By alkali On December 27, 2013 @ 10:06 pm

The appellate court reversed on a narrow legal I ssue: whether the statute making it a crime to endanger the welfare of a child, as it was written at the time, applied to persons who were not personally interacting with children but only supervising others who did so (such as Fr. Lynn). [4]. The court did not hold that Lynn was not deserving of criminal punishment, but simply that the statute as written did not cover that situation.

#12 Comment By bayesian On December 28, 2013 @ 12:06 am

@Siarlys Jenkins

I was not, up until just now, familiar with the Wisconsin Fair Employment Law. Thank you.

Re Lopez, agreed, although somehow the Controlled Substances Act does provide a general criminal jurisdiction via the Necessary and Proper clause, or so Justice Scalia informs me in his concurrence in Raich.

#13 Comment By bayesian On December 28, 2013 @ 1:02 am

@James C.

May I suggest in return that you just go ahead and knock yourself out in your efforts to

“strive to hold more perfectly both [y]ourselves and [y]our bishops to all of the”
[eternal, no doubt] “moral standards set down by our Lord and his church”
with a bit more humility?
(what is the significance of the fact that you didn’t capitalize “Church” in that last fragment, which you did everywhere else in your comment? because of the textual proximity to “[y]our Lord”?)
For the very little it’s worth, I read Uncle Billy as making more tactical or prudential suggestions, cf “knock off trying to be sexual policemen, at least for a while“, i.e. not forever, given that the message is likely to be even less effective than usual while Msgr Lynn’s story is back in the headlines. In that respect the suggestion is hardly a non sequitur.

Uncle Billy does not appear based just on that comment (sorry, Uncle Billy: I don’t recognize you as a frequent commenter) to be anti-Catholic, though the inference that he is a leftish Catholic and therefore in opposition to you and yours is quite plausible. I have no idea what his favorite behaviors might be (and therefore what the Church’s stance on said behaviors might be), but do you?

The problem, of course, for many of us who do think “the Church is a fallible, man-made, quasi-political organization” (of significant power and influence), are completely uninterested in whether or not the Church “approves” of our behaviors, and think “eternal consequences” is an unintentional oxymoron*, is that the said Church in various ways does attempt to apply a selected and variable subset of those moral standards to everybody, not just the Church’s communicants, via secular legislation, as man-made, quasi-political organizations are wont to do.

n.b.I’m not suggesting that the Church should stay out of secular politics: to do so would be contrary to the Church’s [corporate] understanding of its mission (according to my “interested outsider” understanding of the dominant internal interpretations of the Church’s mission, of course). Rather, when the Church gazes into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into the Church.

*yes, “unintentional oxymoron” is oxymoronic.

#14 Comment By Elijah On December 28, 2013 @ 7:07 am

Legally, Lynn way well indeed be off the hook, and perhaps rightfully so. It does NOT follow that he was a well-meaning fellow in over his head or any other such patronizing claptrap. He KNOWINGLY put pedophiles (real or suspected) in positions of authority over children. He KNOWINGLY shuffled pedophiles around the diocese without ever letting anyone know.

You can give me all the blather about canon law, “the Abp. said…” and all that, but the man had a clear-cut moral duty to do something. Something. He did nothing but put more children in harm’s way.

So if his conviction is overturned after all the appeals, I will rejoice that the justice system freed a legally innocent man. I do not think that means he is morally clean. That’s between him and God. We ought to know better.

[NFR: Oh, morally, I think he’s guilty as hell. — RD]

#15 Comment By carolineredbrook On December 28, 2013 @ 8:05 am

This decision is a travesty of justice. Crimes against children are so heinous that accused pedophiles like Sylvain Kustyan, Jerry Sandusky, Jimmy Saville, etc. and their ENABLERS must be apprehended before they have years to continue to destroy young lives, Sandusky is now safely behind bars. But unfortunately, Kustyan, who has been formally charged with two counts each of 1st Degree Sodomy and Sexual Abuse of a ten-year-old little boy, fled to avoid imminent arrest. Kustyan, formerly of Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Hermin/ Mazingarbe, France,as an English teacher, has led numerous groups of schoolchildren on trips to the US, the UK and Ireland.. Pedophiles condemn their victims to a lifetime of emotional and psychological trauma and often permanent physical ailments as well. Since the average pedophile has 300 different victims in their lifetime and since the recidivism rate among pedophiles is virtually 100% and since there is no effective treatment and no known cure they must be stopped ASAP!

#16 Comment By Thill On December 28, 2013 @ 10:06 am

Alkali – you are wrong. Did you even read the decision? The appellate court determined that even if you accept the position that the law applied to him, he was not guilty of violating it.

#17 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 28, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

FWIW, the Controlled Substances Act has a curious history… it was not enacted under a general criminal jurisdiction, it was enacted under the authority of the interstate commerce clause to regulate the safety of of pharmaceuticals being transmitted in interstate commerce. Of course being fungible, drugs that are part of an interstate market potentially impact interstate commerce.

The fact that substances being sold for medicinal purposes by untrained and unlicensed practitioners were inflicting demonstrable harm, which might be rectified by a system of carefully regulated prescription according the the latest scientific knowledge of applications and doses, left out the fact that there was also a market for recreational usage, quite apart from actual medical usage, or phony claims by malicious unlicensed practitioners.

If we legalize personal possession for recreational use… do we abandon the whole system of prescription for actual medical use? Probably not, but its going to be a thorny matter to work out.

carolineredbrook exemplifies how bad law is made by understandable but incoherent moral outrage. Sandusky is serving a long prison term, and rightly so. Saville was dead before his crimes came to public attention, and God will deal with that as God sees fit. Kustyan is a fugitive. Lynn is not a fugitive, not dead, did not personally molest any children, and there is no evidence that he intended to enable molestation. The conclusion that “this” decision is a travesty of justice does not follow from the other string of examples. The court rightly held that the law is not an infinitely flexible instrument that can be used to convict when we are all really outraged, even if the actions that outrage us are not set forth by statute as a crime. THAT would be a true travesty of justice.

#18 Comment By Uncle Billy On December 28, 2013 @ 3:32 pm

Note to James B: “The rest of us will strive to hold…” Greater than 90% of the Catholic laity have practiced or are currently practicing contraception. They do so, because it makes sense. The Bishops have zero credability regarding marital relations. Zero. I don’t listen to them in this area, nor does virtually anyone I know. So far as “eternal consequences” go, I’ll take my chances in the next life, and frankly, some prissy, intellectually mediocre Vatican toady of a Bishop who protects pedophiles, would I think have more to fear from the Almighty, come “judgement day” or whatever. Google the Borgias, Medicis, and the other rotten, corrupt Popes.

John Paul’s pet Traddie Maciel, was a corrupt pervert and world class phony. He was very, very wrong with Maciel and he was wrong with a lot of other things.

I’m not shutting up, nor am I leaving the Church which belongs to me, just as much as it belongs to you. Get used to it.

#19 Comment By bayesian On December 28, 2013 @ 4:40 pm

Yeah, I know the CSA derives its authority from the Commerce Clause, which is why I specifically called out Scalia, who is generally for rolling back Commerce Clause jurisprudence wherever he can (didn’t he give a speech at the Federalist Society or some such place wherein he basically called for overturning Fickburn?), and thereby hung his concurrence in Raich on the Necessary and Proper clause, using a rationale that could probably be stretched to give the opposite result in Lopez. I.e., Scalia in Raich was as much “desired result first, rationale second” as your appropriate castigation of Kohl (with less justification than Kohl had, given that Scalia was in fact a Justice). Compare O’Connor and Thomas’ dissents.

#20 Comment By Erin Manning On December 28, 2013 @ 9:56 pm

Uncle Billy, why would you bother to leave the Church, when your clear contempt for her and for her teachings makes you outside of her in all but a technicality?

And, no, “90%” of Catholic laity have not used contraception. There are plenty of sources you can check to see the more realistic numbers, which fall quite a bit lower when you’re specifically talking about married Catholics of childbearing age who actually attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. Of course, when you add in “have ever used” contraception you also have to include people like some of my friends who did use it when they were lapsed Catholics who were ignorant of Church teaching and stopped using it when they rediscovered their faith and returned to it.

“But everybody is doing it!” is a terribly poor excuse, whether we’re talking about the grave sin (mortal, under the usual conditions) of contraceptive sex or the grave sins of dereliction of episcopal duty. One would think that any person who has outgrown his adolescence would realize that.

#21 Comment By James Kabala On December 28, 2013 @ 9:59 pm

“The smarter Bishops understand this, but then under JP II and Benedict, intelligence was not the primary criteria for promotion. Fanaticism, especially on sexual matters trumped everything, and now we are seeing how very, very stupid this policy was.”

This really doesn’t have much relation to reality (but to be fair, the conservative counter-fantasy that only liberal bishops were to blame is equally false).

#22 Comment By Maggie On December 28, 2013 @ 10:56 pm

Whatever happens on appeal, he is not going back to jail. His sentence was excessive even if he were to be found guilty. I saw actual perpetrators, with criminal records, receive far less than this. (Note: I was a prosecutor in Philadelphia for 6 years.). He has already served more time than those convicted of the same crime and with a similar background.

#23 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On December 29, 2013 @ 8:22 pm

As a Protestant, I tend to sympathize with Uncle Billy’s protestation that the RC church belongs to him as much as it does to Erin, or the Pope. As a firm advocate of freedom of association, and of religion (overlapping but not identical principles), I have to acknowledge that if the foundation of a given denomination is that it is hierarchical and that the people at the top speak with the authority of Christ and the Apostles, then if you deny that premise, you have by definition disassociated yourself.

No biggie. Uncle Billy can join the Old Catholics, or form the Evangelical Association of Catholic Rite Congregational Churches. Contraception does make sense, but the RC church authorities will have to decide whether purity or the size of their membership and implied clout are more important to them.

Bayesian, I believe you refer to Wickard v. Filburn. Actually, I would also favor overturning or limiting the scope of that decision. I’ve seen it used to rationalize making the imprudent act of a mother taking nude photos of her daughter on Christmas morning a federal pornography offense because the disposable camera “moved in inter-state commerce,” rather than state authorities pursuing a more sensible prosecution on child endangerment charges. (The 9th Circuit appropriately ruled against the former course of action, but with one plausible dissent).

I certainly agree that Scalia is at times prone to pursue any rationale he can in order to arrive at a desired result, and that this results in bad law.

#24 Comment By Elijah On December 30, 2013 @ 8:20 am

“Fanaticism, especially on sexual matters…”

Serious question: do you not know that the Catholic teaching on such matters is Bible-based? They have no more authority to change that then they do to advise God.