Monsignor Lynn's Conviction Is Overturned

A Pennsylvania appeals court has overturned the child-welfare conviction of Monsignor William J. Lynn, who was jailed over his role in supervising a priest who sexually abused minors in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The court ordered that Lynn, who has served 18 months of a 3- to 6-year prison sentence, be released. [A PDF copy of the opinion can be downloaded under the listing for Dec. 26, Commonwealth v. Lynn.]

The ruling, written by Superior Court President Judge John T. Bender, turns on the question of whether Lynn was "supervising the welfare of a child" through his supervision of priests who worked more directly with children.

Prosecutors had contended that if the law applied only to direct supervision of children, it would have said so: "supervising a child" instead of "supervising the welfare of a child." The trial judge, Teresa Sarmina, had agreed with that. She pointed to prior Pennsylvania cases holding that any statute designed to protect children must be read broadly, and interpreted using "the common sense of the community."

The appeals court disagreed, and pointed to another precedent holding that when a statute's wording was ambiguous, the court should lean toward protecting the defendant.

The appeals court also rejected the accusation that Lynn was an accomplice of the abusive priest. To do so, evidence would have to show that the sexual abuse was a "natural and probable consequence" of decisions made in assigning the priest. The court said there was no evidence Lynn knew the priest would abuse a child, and that there was no psychiatric diagnosis in place to suggest a predisposition.

That the priest had sexually assaulted a minor a decade before a second incident was not sufficent evidence for Judge Bender, who wrote that "the notion that Avery was an ongoing, ever-present danger more than a decade after having sexually assaulted R.F. was tenuous at best.”

In 2007, Pennsylvania changed the child-welfare law to make it apply to a "person that employs or
supervises such a person" who supervises the welfare of children -- too late to apply to Lynn's actions. Did that change implicitly acknowledge that the earlier law didn't apply in Lynn's case? That's what the appeals court found. Or did it simply clarify what was already in the law? That is what prosecutors argued.

An appeal is likely.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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