The single guilty verdict last month in the high-profile criminal abuse trial in Philadelphia was historic. Msgr. William J. Lynn became the first Catholic official in the United States to be convicted for the crime of allowing a priest suspected of abuse to continue in ministry with access to children.
“I thought I was helping people,” Msgr. Lynn testified during the trial. “I thought I was helping priests, and in those circumstances, I thought I was helping victims, as much as I could.”
But Lynn’s efforts were not enough. His failure with regard to one abusive priest convinced a jury that he was guilty of one of the charges of endangering the welfare of a child.
The verdict surely gave a sense of consolation and satisfaction to those who were so grievously harmed by criminal abusive clergy. Of this we must be mindful.
A groundbreaking precedent?
Many observers have declared that the guilty verdict will encourage other prosecutors across the country to pursue actions against Catholic officials for crimes committed years ago.
“This is the first time that someone responsible for the supervision has been held to that civil accountability,” Boston College’s Rev. Raymond Helmick, a Jesuit priest, told the Wall Street Journal after the verdict. “That is a precedent that may go very far. I’m sure all kinds of people are itching to bring criminal cases against many, many authorities, and we’ll have to see how far it goes.”
The notorious Church-suing attorney Jeff Anderson, based in Minnesota, similarly opined, “This trial is unprecedented; it has set a pathway and a standard for prosecutors across the United States.”
But are such observations correct? Looking at what transpired with the Philadelphia cases, the outlook for future prosecutions in other areas of the country is not as clear as some might think.
One for seven
In truth, after reviewing the original claims of the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office at the start of the case and then looking at the actual results of the trial, one can see that the prosecution’s cases against the two defendants—Msgr. Lynn and Father James Brennan—were largely disproven. Though the media would have you believe otherwise, the overall case presented by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams was mostly a failure.
When the first witness took the stand in the monumental trial during the last week in March, there were two men facing seven serious criminal charges. Msgr. William Lynn faced two charges of conspiracy and two charges of endangering the welfare of a child. Father James Brennan faced one charge each of conspiracy, attempted rape, and endangering the welfare of a child.
By the time the jury returned to the courtroom with their verdicts three months later, however, only one of those seven original charges actually returned a guilty verdict.
Much of the prosecution’s case centered on the bold claim that Msgr. Lynn and other Philadelphia clergy actually committed conspiracy—that clerics acted deliberately with the intention that children be abused.
It was a wild accusation, indeed. At the start of the trial, one could not help but wonder what kind of evidence the District Attorney’s Office planned on presenting to demonstrate that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was willfully operating some kind of child-sex campaign.
As it turned out, there was no such evidence. After nearly two months of testimony and nearly 50 witnesses called to the stand, while the trial was still in session in the middle of May, Judge M. Teresa Sarmina dismissed most of the counts of conspiracy against Msgr. Lynn and Father Brennan. The prosecution’s conspiracy charges were so baseless and unwarranted that the judge concluded that the charges should not even be deliberated by the jury. (One conspiracy charge remained against Msgr. Lynn, and the jury later acquitted him of it.)
It was a significant victory for the two defendants, but one would have hardly known it from the media coverage. In most news reports, the dismissals merited only a passing mention.
Following the completion of the trial, the jury foreman, 35-year-old Isa Logan, appeared on a local television morning program to talk about the trial and the conspiracy charges that had been levied against Msgr. Lynn.
“None of us understood or believed that [Msgr. Lynn] had the understanding that here’s a predator priest, I’ll help him get to another parish so he can continue to enjoy what he likes to do,” Logan stated. “None of us believed that.”
In the end, Msgr. Lynn was found guilty of only one of the four charges he faced. The cleric acknowledged that he knew that Edward Avery was ministering at a parish in the vicinity of children even though Avery had received a credible complaint years earlier of sex abuse. Avery was then accused of abuse in his new assignment, and it is because of this episode that Lynn was found guilty of a third-degree felony of “endangering the welfare of a child.”
Did the Philadelphia DA misapply the law?
One aspect of the Philadelphia trial that has not been widely reported is that the verdict appears ripe for an appeal. For an appeal to be successful, an attorney must show that a significant error in law or judgment was made during the trial, and this certainly appears to be the case with Msgr. Lynn.
Again, the crime for which Lynn was convicted was endangering the welfare of a child (EWOC). On the surface, it would appear that Lynn did indeed endanger children by allowing an abusive priest to remain in an assignment in which the cleric had access to children. But this Pennsylvania statute had historically only been applied to those who had direct supervision of children (e.g., parents, coaches, teachers, etc.), not to those who simply managed employees.
Indeed, Msgr. Lynn did not directly care for children. Here merely acted as a liaison for priests from his diocesan office.
Most surprisingly, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office actually admitted in its 2005 grand jury report that Pennsylvania’s endangerment statute did not apply to Msgr. Lynn. In the 2005 report, Assistant District Attorney Mariana Sorensen and attorney Marci Hamilton, representing the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, wrote:
The [EWOC] statute confines its coverage to parents, guardians, or other persons “supervising the welfare of a child.” High-level archdiocese officials [like Msgr. Lynn], however, were far removed from any direct contact with children.
In other words, Philly prosecutors publicly admitted in 2005 that they were unable to prosecute Msgr. Lynn under the EWOC statute. The law simply did not apply to him.
Therefore, an obvious question remains: why did the District Attorney’s Office prosecute Msgr. Lynn under the EWOC statute in 2011 when it already acknowledged in 2005 that it could not charge him with it?
It’s a very reasonable question, and it is surely one that Lynn’s lawyers will be asking during his appeal. One of Lynn’s attorneys, Alan J. Tauber, reviewed 280 cases in Pennsylvania involving the EWOC statute and found that none of the cases were applied to supervisors of employees.
“[Msgr. Lynn’s case is] one of the clearest cases for reversal that I’ve ever seen based on the application of the law,” Tauber concluded.
In the 2005 report, the attorneys recommended that the EWOC statute be amended to include not just those who directly supervise children, but also those who supervise employees. And this recommendation was followed. In 2007, the Pennsylvania legislature amended the law to include managers of employees. But because of the prohibition of ex post facto prosecutions, Lynn could not be charged under the amended 2007 statute. He exited his diocesan position in 2004.
Not an impressive precedent
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office invested 10 years, three grand jury reports, a small army of government lawyers, and countless investigative hours that climaxed with a 13-week trial of two men facing seven criminal charges.
The prosecution also had the advantage of a trial judge who, by all indications, granted it extraordinary favoritism by deciding nearly every evidentiary ruling, motion, and request in its favor. During the trial, Judge Sarmina was described as “often mistaken for a member of the prosecution team.”
So when other prosecutors around the country take a closer look at Philadelphia and the extensive time, money, and resources that were expended only to return a single third-degree felony conviction and see that this one successful verdict could very well be overturned, it is hard to imagine them being encouraged to seek convictions against Church officials for actions committed decades ago.
However, prosecutions of current-day criminal wrongdoing are an entirely different matter. For the safety of children and the good of the Church, prosecutors are rightfully aggressive in searching out criminal failures to report child abuse happening today. Fortunately, with the exception of a questionable case in Kansas City against Bishop Robert Finn, such prosecutions against Church officials have been nonexistent.