Seth Williams says he’s “disgusted” by the Pennsylvania Superior Court’s decision reversing the child endangerment conviction of Monsignor William Lynn. Fair enough. He’s probably a tad peeved that his grand experiment in statutory interpretation, one that ignored the meaning of “ex post facto” in an effort to catch a priest, fell apart. He is apparently “disgusted” that a man who was charged with aiding and abetting the abuse of children gamed the legal system.
Well, let me take a moment to tell you what leaves me “disgusted.” I am “disgusted” at the continuation of a show trial that was flawed at the outset and which exploited the public’s legitimate anger at the evil crimes committed against children by a minority of Catholic men. I am also “disgusted” at the hypocrisy of those who seek justice by embracing injustice.
Monsignor Lynn is not an example of profound moral courage. He could have gone outside the chain of command and broken the creeping, deadly silence that protected perverted creatures and exposed innocent children to unspeakable harm. No one — not even those who personally know Monsignor Lynn and attest to his kindness and humility — gives him a pass on his failure to act. Even those who think he was the “fall guy” for his superiors think that, at a human level, he could and should have done more.
But this does not make him a criminal. It’s clear that the law under which he was convicted should never have been applied to him, as it was meant to cover only people who had immediate supervisory control of children. The law was amended in 2007 to include people like Monsignor Lynn, but you can’t be convicted of a crime retroactively.
Seth Williams is a very smart man, and he knows that. The fact that he was “disgusted” with the Superior Court ruling indicates that he either severely miscalculated the effect of that 2007 amendment or felt that public outrage and a communal sense of misdirected vengeance overrode the legal technicality known as due process.
I once clerked for the Superior Court. It is not an easy thing to get three of its judges to agree on what to have for lunch, let alone a legal decision. It’s much more common to get two votes in the majority and a dissent ranging from the angry to the simply resigned. In other cases you might get two votes in the majority and a concurrence in the result, with a difference in opinion on the legal analysis.
In the Lynn case, they were unanimous and of the same mind in finding that the lower court essentially blew it, calling Judge Teresa Sarmina’s decision to convict “fundamentally flawed.” Since Judge Sarmina had flatly rejected defense arguments about the unconstitutionality of retroactivity, the Superior Court essentially told Monsignor Lynn’s defense team that, yes, they were right. It’s no surprise that Seth Williams and his prosecutorial team would be “disgusted” with that professional critique.
The D.A.’s office will, of course, deny that this is in any way a personal crusade to preserve its historic victory. The priestly scalp, er, collar it collected in the Lynn case was the first time that a cleric of that rank and elevation had been held responsible in the international sex abuse scandal. To see it crumble into unconstitutional dust must hurt.
But what should hurt more is the vindictive persistence to hold onto this ecclesiastical head. It is one thing to say you will appeal a verdict with which you disagree. It is quite another to say things like “it is disgusting that [they] would pay to free [Lynn].” Seth Williams, using one of his favorite new words, was referring to the fact that the church is reported to have helped the monsignor post bail, something that the D.A.’s office also strenuously opposed.
It takes unfathomable chutzpah to be told by an appellate court that your prosecution wrongly kept a man in jail for 18 months and then try to block that man’s release.
It is even more striking that the D.A.’s office would take such a draconian posture in light of Judge Sarmina’s comments in connection with her decision to grant the $250,000 bail. In an admirable show of humility, she said that “if the conviction is in question, is not the punishment in question?”
Many readers have criticized me in the past for appearing to care more about Monsignor Lynn’s welfare than that of the victims. They tell me that if I had my own children I’d feel differently.
I wouldn’t. People should be punished for the crimes they commit, not for the crimes we want to hold them responsible for. A wrongful conviction will not free the abused from their personal prisons. It will only feed the vengeful beast living within each of us, one that is only tamed by a blindfolded lady holding a scale.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News (firstname.lastname@example.org).