Courtesy of Northeast Times/Maria Pouchnikova
CONVICTION REVERSED: Msgr. William Lynn is surrounded by supporters as he heads to Philadelphia Common Pleas Court in this 2012 file photo. The state Superior Court last week reversed his conviction and ordered him released "forthwith" from prison.
The overturning of a criminal conviction is a rare event, with the odds of it occurring at less than 5 percent. Reversals in the criminal courts are “like diamonds,” as one local defense lawyer put it.
So it was a shocker on Dec. 26 when a panel of three state Superior Court judges unanimously ruled that the landmark conviction of Monsignor William J. Lynn should be reversed and he should be “discharged forthwith” from prison.
There may be more surprises when the alleged victim in the Lynn case takes the stand next June, when his civil case against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia is scheduled to go to trial.
Lynn, former secretary for clergy for the archdiocese from 1992 to 2004, was the first Catholic administrator in the country to go to jail for the sexual sins of the clergy — not for touching a child, but for failing to rein in the predator priests he supervised.
Though it reversed his 2012 conviction, the Superior Court judges noted there was evidence that he “prioritized the archdiocese’s reputation over the safety of potential victims.”
So, what will be the impact of the Lynn reversal?
In the short term, Lynn, the scapegoat for the sins of the local archdiocese, is going to be released from prison on $250,000 bail after serving 18 months of a 3- to 6-year sentence. For the monsignor, it’s a legal victory with a bitter aftertaste. The Superior Court confirmed what a grand jury and a former district attorney had decided back in 2005, before District Attorney Seth Williams took office and reversed course: That under the law, Lynn should have never been charged with the crime that sent him to jail, namely endangering the welfare of a child. The state’s 1972 child endangerment law originally applied only to adults who had direct contact with children, such as parents, guardians or teachers. Lynn never met the alleged victim in his case; the law has since been amended to include supervisors such as Lynn.
Lynn, 62, who professed only to be following his archbishop’s orders, may want to return to his former quiet life as pastor of St. Joseph Church in Downingtown. But it’s hard to believe that the archdiocese would be willing to take the heat that would accompany restoring Lynn to his former position.
The big losers in the Lynn reversal are M. Teresa Sarmina, the judge who presided over the show trial that sent Lynn up the river, and DA Williams, who just lost the biggest trophy head from his self-described “historic” prosecution of the church. The DA has already announced he’ll appeal the case to the state Supreme Court.
The Superior Court judges who reversed Lynn’s conviction described Sarmina’s handling of the case as “fundamentally flawed.” In the legal world, that’s like being called a moron.
Sadly, the Superior Court didn’t look at the way Williams handled this prosecution. As far as I’m concerned, Lynn isn’t the only guy behind bars who deserves to get out of jail.
I’m no fan of the local archdiocese. I’ve been publicly denounced by the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, and described by his former spokesman, Brian Tierney, as a “low-grade virus that keeps coming back.” So I’m the last guy you would expect to be sticking up for anybody at the archdiocese.
But I covered the Lynn trial as a blogger, and it was a travesty. Sarmina made so many rulings in favor of the district attorney that I wrote she was “often mistaken for a member of the prosecution team.” The judge allowed into evidence 21 supplemental cases of sex abuse, to show a pattern of conduct in the archdiocese. The cases dated back to 1948, three years before Lynn was born.
A later prosecution by the DA put two other priests in jail, as well as a Catholic schoolteacher. All were convicted on the testimony of one alleged victim, a former 10-year-old altar boy described in a 2011 grand jury report as “Billy Doe.” It is Billy Doe and his parents who have filed the civil lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia seeking compensation for his suffering.
Will the Lynn reversal have any spillover effect on the other defendants now in jail, or on the ongoing civil case? No and no.
The other three defendants — former priest Edward V. Avery, Father Charles Engelhardt and former teacher Bernard Shero — were sent to jail for sex abuse as well as endangering the welfare of a child. And, unless the archdiocese rolls over, the civil case will come down to the credibility of Billy Doe, an issue untouched by the Superior Court decision that reversed Lynn’s conviction.
Depite the verdicts handed down by juries, and even though I know victims of sex abuse often go on to have tormented lives, I came to believe that Billy Doe, the DA’s star witness, has zero credibility. He’s a former heroin addict and thief arrested six times as an adult, including one bust for possession with intent to distribute 56 bags of heroin. Though he testified to being a helpless altar boy being passed around among three predators in the late 1990s at a parish in Northeast Philly, not one scrap of evidence has been recovered, nor has one witness come for-ward to support his story, which changed multiple times.
There’s also the matter of the archdiocese’s secret archive files, 45,000 pages of records that featured prominently in Lynn’s trial. The files catalogue 40 years of sex abuse, revealing 169 predator priests and the suffering of hundreds of child victims.
But Billy Doe isn’t mentioned in those files; he made his allegations in 2009, after the 2005 grand jury report that first exposed the depths of clerical depravity in Philadelphia. But there is no instance in those files of a predator passing along a child victim to another predator.
So, the way I see it, that Superior Court opinion declaring Lynn innocent of the crime he was charged with was a good start, but the whole truth has yet to come out.
Read more coverage of the Lynn story at Big Trial.
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