PHILADELPHIA — A Roman Catholic Church official who has been jailed for more than a year for his handling of priest sex-abuse complaints saw his landmark conviction reversed Thursday and was ordered released.
A three-judge Superior Court panel unanimously rejected prosecution arguments that Monsignor William Lynn, the first U.S. church official ever charged or convicted over the handling of clergy-abuse complaints, was legally responsible for an abused boy’s welfare in the late 1990s.
“He’s been in prison 18 months for a crime he didn’t commit and couldn’t commit under the law,” said his attorney, Thomas Bergstrom. “It’s incredible what happened to this man.”
Lynn, 62, was never accused of personally molesting any child. Instead, he was convicted in 2012 of endangering the welfare of a child for how he handled the case of a priest who had been accused of sexually abusing children.
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Lynn already has served about 18 months in prison. He received a three- to six-year prison sentence for the child-endangerment conviction. His lawyers hoped for his immediate release Thursday from the state prison in Waymart, but the appeals court denied the request, instead sending the bail issue back to the trial court.
Prosecutors vowed to oppose bail and to challenge the appeals panel’s opinion.
“Because we will be appealing, the conviction still stands for now, and the defendant cannot be lawfully released until the end of the process,” District Attorney Seth Williams said.
His office contended at trial that Lynn reassigned known predators to new parishes in Philadelphia while he was the archdiocese’s secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004. Lynn’s conviction stems from the case of one priest, Edward Avery, found to have abused a child in 1998 after such a transfer.
Victims’ groups blasted the reversal.
“We know thousands of betrayed Catholics and wounded victims will be disheartened by this news,” said David Cloches’, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Lynn’s attorneys have long argued that the state’s child-endangerment law at the time applied only to parents and caregivers, not supervisors such as Lynn. Common Pleas Judge Teresa Sarmina had rejected their argument and sent the case to trial.
Sarmina concluded that Lynn perhaps drafted a 1994 list of accused priests to try to address the clergy-abuse problem. But when Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua had the list destroyed, Lynn chose to stick around — and keep quiet, she said. A copy of the list was found years later in a safe and was repeatedly shown at trial.
Lynn’s supporters believe he was made a scapegoat for the church’s sins. Bergstrom said his client hopes to return to ministry and has enjoyed support of the current Philadelphia archbishop, Charles Chaput, who twice visited him in prison.
Material from the Los Angeles Times is included in this report.