Msgr. Lynn’s Conviction Reversed On Child Endangerment Statute
By Ralph Cipriano
The Superior Court of Pennsylvania today reversed the “historic” conviction of Msgr. William J. Lynn on one count of endangering the welfare of a child.
The court said the “plain language” of the state’s 1972 child endangerment law required that Lynn had to be “a supervisor of an endangered child victim” in order to be convicted of the third-degree felony of endangering the welfare of a child. Lynn, however, never even met Billy Doe, the former 10-year-old altar boy who was the alleged victim in the case.
In a 43-page opinion, the Superior Court said Judge M. Teresa Sarmina’s decision to allow the conviction of Lynn under the state’s original child endangerment law was “fundamentally flawed.”
“It’s just absolutely wonderful,” said Thomas A. Bergstrom, Lynn’s defense lawyer. “This whole prosecution was totally dishonest from day one,” Bergstrom said of District Attorney Seth Williams and his staff. “They had to know that that statute didn’t apply to Lynn. And their attempt to justify it just doesn’t wash.”
“The tragedy of this is Lynn should have never been prosecuted,” Bergstrom said. “He’s been sitting in jail 18 months for a crime he couldn’t possibly commit as a matter of law.”
“Now, we’re working on getting him [Lynn] out of jail,” Bergstrom said. “We’re looking for a judge to vacate the sentence. The warden needs more than just our assurances” to let the monsignor out of jail, Bergstrom said.
Lynn’s defense lawyers have long argued that the state’s original child endangerment law didn’t apply to Lynn, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s former secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004. Despite the plain language of the law, however, and a 2005 grand jury report that specifically said the law didn’t apply to Lynn, it’s an argument that fell on deaf ears until today.
“This was the defense position from day one,” said Alan J. Tauber, a member of Lynn’s defense team. “It’s a shame that Msgr. Lynn had to spend even a day in jail, much less a year and a half, before the defense argument was vindicated.”
“This is a triumph for the rule of law,” Tauber said. “It’s a complete rejection of the district attorney’s application of the law.”
District Attorney Seth Williams, who does not talk to this blog, told Maryclaire Dale of the Associated Press that he strongly disagreed with the decision, and would most likely be appealing it.
For more than a year, Williams has stonewalled all questions regarding his self-described “historic” prosecution of Lynn and others in the local archdiocese. Lynn was the first Catholic administrator in the country to be sent to jail for the sexual sins of the clergy, even though he never laid a hand on any child.
D.A. Williams’ historic prosecution, however, relied on a flawed interpretation of the state child endangerment law, as well as on the dubious testimony of Billy Doe, a former heroin addict and thief who told an unbelievable and constantly changing story.
Msgr. Lynn, 62, is now serving a 3 to 6 year prison term for his June 22, 2012 conviction on one count of endangering the welfare of a child, namely Billy Doe. The next question is whether Lynn gets out of jail.
“The short answer is he probably will get out but it may take a bail motion to get that accomplished,” Tauber said. Before the Superior Court can free Lynn, Tauber said, the court will have to listen to any further appeal motions from the district attorney’s office.
And although the law is clear, D.A. Williams probably isn’t done grandstanding.
The state’s 1972 child endangerment law says: “A parent, guardian or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age commits a misdemeanor of the second degree if he knowingly endangers the welfare of a child by violating a duty of care, protection or support.”
For nearly 40 years in Pennsylvania, that law was applied to an adult who had a relationship with a child, such as a parent, guardian or teacher who “knowingly endangers the welfare of a child.” Much of the Superior Court opinion reviews the appeal court’s own previous rulings upholding those principles.
In 2005, then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham and a grand jury concluded that the 1972 child endangerment law did not apply to Msgr. Lynn, Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, or any other high-ranking official of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The grand jury issued a report that said although it would like to, it could not legally indict Lynn or Bevilacqua for endangering the welfare of a child:
“As defined under the law,” the grand jury wrote, in remarks quoted today by the Superior Court, “the offense of endangering the welfare of children is too narrow to support a successful prosecution of the decision-makers who were running the Archdiocese. The [1972 child endangerment] statute confines its coverage to parents, guardians, or other persons ‘supervising the welfare of a child.’ High-level Archdiocesan officials, however, were far removed from any direct contact with children.”
Avery, Engelhardt and Shero are currently in jail as a result of Billy Doe’s testimony and the D.A.’s historic prosecution. Father Brennan, who was accused by another victim, was acquitted on a hung jury, but is scheduled to be retried next year.
The Superior Court agreed. The court ruled that Lynn “did not know or know of” Billy Doe, and “was not sufficiently aware of Avery’s supervision of” Billy Doe, “nor did he have any specific information that Avery intended or was preparing to molest [Billy Doe] or any other child at St. Jerome’s,” where the alleged crime occurred.
“In sum, the evidence was insufficient to demonstrate that [Msgr. Lynn] acted with the ‘intent of promoting or facilitating” an offense of endangering the welfare of a child, the Superior Court opinion states.
“Having determined that the evidence was not sufficient to support [Msgr. Lynn’s] conviction for EWOC either as a principal or an accomplice, we are compelled to reverse [Msgr. Lynn’s] judgment of sentence,” the opinion said. “And, as there are no other offenses for which he [Msgr. Lynn ]was convicted in this cased, [Msgr. Lynn] is ordered discharged forthwith.”