PHILADELPHIA -- A state appeals court on Thursday reversed the conviction of Monsignor William J. Lynn, the former Archdiocese of Philadelphia administrator who became the first church official nationwide to be tried for covering up child sex abuse by priests.
In a 43-page opinion, a three-judge Superior Court panel wrote that prosecutors had misapplied Pennsylvania's child endangerment law by claiming that Monsignor Lynn, as the archdiocese secretary for clergy, was responsible for abuse because he supervised a priest, Edward Avery, when Avery sexually abused an altar boy in the mid-1990s.
The court wrote that the law, as it was written during Monsignor Lynn's tenure in the 1990s and early 2000s, only held accountable people who directly supervised children.
Monsignor Lynn, 62, has been serving a three- to six-year prison term since his conviction and sentencing last year. His lead lawyer, Thomas A. Bergstrom, said he hoped that the monsignor would be freed in a few days.
"It's the right result, and it's the right decision," Mr. Bergstrom said. "It's unfortunate that he had to spend 18 months in prison before we got it."
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said his office likely will appeal the decision. "I am disappointed and strongly disagree with the court's decision," he said.
In its ruling, the Superior Court sided with a legal argument that Monsignor Lynn's lawyers had been making for two years, but one that Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina rejected before and after his trial.
The higher court also found that Monsignor Lynn, now 62, could not be convicted as an accomplice to Avery's abuse because, even though he knew of a previous allegation against Avery, there was no proof that he had specific knowledge that Avery had been planning or preparing to assault children.
"We cannot dispute that the Commonwealth presented more than adequate evidence to sufficiently demonstrate that [Monsignor Lynn] prioritized the Archdiocese's reputation over the safety of potential victims of sexually abusive priests and, by inference, that the same prioritization dominated [Monsignor Lynn's] handling of [an abusive priest]," the ruling said. "Nevertheless, we do not believe such a showing is sufficient to demonstrate intent to promote or facilitate [the endangering the welfare of children] offense."
Monsignor Lynn's arrest followed a scathing 2011 grand jury report and sparked a second wave of promised reform by the Philadelphia church. Dozens of priests have since been suspended and re-investigated by the church over past claims of abuse.
Judge Sarmina imprisoned Monsignor Lynn immediately after the jury decision in June 2012. He has been serving his term at the State Correctional Institution Waymart, in the state's northeast corner.
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, was disappointed by the decision. He said church officials have "time and time again" used expensive, smart lawyers to escape responsibility for abuses. "I think many, many survivors and betrayed Catholics will feel very sad about this decision," he said.
Monsignor Lynn's supporters maintained that he was being made a scapegoat for the church hierarchy, and he consistently maintained that he followed orders. "We can't have the Salem witch hunts on Catholic priests, like they've had in the past," said Joe Maher of Opus Bono, a network for priests accused of sexual assault. "This will send a message to other prosecutors that you really have to find and hold accountable those that have caused the harm to the victims, and not to those that may have been in authority over those who were abusing."
As the secretary for clergy under Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua for nearly a dozen years, Monsignor Lynn had responsibilities that included proposing assignments for priests and investigating complaints against them. Prosecutors portrayed him as a powerful gatekeeper who quietly shuffled abusive priests between parishes, misinformed parishioners and worked harder to protect the church's reputation than he did to protect children.
Monsignor Lynn took the stand for nearly three days in his own defense. He asserted that he lacked authority to remove abusive priests but said he did as much as he could to keep them away from children. "I thought I was helping people," he testified in May 2012. "I thought I was helping priests and, in those circumstances, I thought I was helping victims, as much as I could."
In 2005, a grand jury excoriated Cardinal Bevilacqua, Monsignor Lynn and the archdiocese hierarchy for their roles in handling abuse complaints but claimed that gaps in the law prevented recommendations for charges. The state child-endangerment law in effect when Monsignor Lynn was secretary for clergy limited responsibility to direct caretakers, such as parents or guardians. In 2007, the law was expanded to include employers and supervisors whose subordinates abused minors in their care.
Prosecutors contended that the changes amounted only to a clarification of the previous law, and thus Monsignor Lynn could be charged under that statute. But his defenders argued that the legislation created a new law and a new class of offenders.
Under that law, there was little doubt that Monsignor Lynn potentially could have been held legally responsible for actions of other priests under the amended statute, said Alan J. Tauber, another member of Monsignor Lynn's defense team.
Prosecutors now could ask the Superior Court to rehear the case or petition the state Supreme Court.