By Maryclaire Dale
PHILADELPHIA: A Roman Catholic church official who has been jailed for more than a year for his handling of priest sex-abuse complaints had his landmark conviction reversed and was ordered released Thursday.
A three-judge Superior Court panel unanimously rejected prosecution arguments that Monsignor William Lynn, the first U.S. church official ever charged or convicted for the handling of clergy-abuse complaints, was legally responsible for an abused boy’s welfare in the late 1990s.
“He’s been in prison 18 months for a crime he didn’t commit and couldn’t commit under the law,” said his attorney, Thomas Bergstrom. “It’s incredible what happened to this man.”
Lynn, 62, is serving a three- to six-year prison sentence after his child-endangerment conviction last year. His lawyers hoped for his immediate release from the state prison in Waymart, but the appeals court denied the request, instead sending the bail issue back to the trial court.
Prosecutors vowed to oppose bail and to challenge the 43-page opinion.
“Because we will be appealing, the conviction still stands for now, and the defendant cannot be lawfully released until the end of the process,” District Attorney Seth Williams said in a statement.
His office contended at trial that Lynn reassigned known predators to new parishes in Philadelphia while he was the archdiocese’s secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004. Lynn’s conviction stems from the case of one priest, Edward Avery, found to have abused a child in 1998 after such a transfer.
Victims’ groups blasted the reversal.
“We know thousands of betrayed Catholics and wounded victims will be disheartened by this news,” said David Cloches, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
Lynn’s attorneys have long argued that the state’s child-endangerment law at the time applied only to parents and caregivers, not supervisors like Lynn. Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina had rejected their argument and sent the case to trial.
Bergstrom said Lynn hopes to return to ministry, and has enjoyed support of the current Philadelphia archbishop, Charles J. Chaput, who twice visited him in prison.