PHILADELPHIA (CNS) – A panel of judges for a Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the decision on a priest's conviction in handling a clerical abuse case and ordered his release from prison.
The decision, announced Dec. 26, involves Msgr. William Lynn, former secretary for clergy in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. Msgr. Lynn has served 18 months of a 2012 prison sentence of three to six years after being found guilty of endangering the welfare of a child, a felony.
Prosecutors had argued that the priest had reassigned abusive priests to new parishes in the Philadelphia Archdiocese in his diocesan role as clergy secretary. However, Msgr. Lynn's attorneys argued that Pennsylvania's child-endangerment law at the time applied only to parents and caregivers, not to supervisors, which was Msgr. Lynn's role.
The Superior Court's 43-page opinion described Msgr. Lynn's conviction under the state's original child endangerment law of 1972 as "fundamentally flawed."
It noted that the original meaning of the statute, revised in 2007, required a person who was not a parent or guardian of the endangered child to "at least be engaged in the supervision, or be responsible for the supervision" of the child. The court said the "evidence was insufficient" to demonstrate that Msgr. Lynn "acted with the intent of promoting or facilitating" child endangerment.
The court's ruling, written by Judge Joseph D. Seletyn, also concluded that there was no evidence that Msgr. Lynn knew of the victim of sexual abuse at St. Jerome Parish or that he conspired with the accused priest's plans to abuse the boy.
Prosecutors could appeal the Superior Court panel's decision or ask the full Superior Court to rehear the case.
Msgr. Lynn's lawyers told The Associated Press they will try to get the priest released from the state prison in Waymart by Jan. 2.
A statement from the Philadelphia Archdiocese said the Dec. 26 decision "does not and will not alter the church's commitment to assist and support the survivors of sexual abuse on their journey toward healing or our dedicated efforts to ensure that all young people in our care are safe."
The statement promised vigilance in child protection and said, "The reputation of the church can only be rebuilt through transparency, honesty and a fulfillment of our responsibility to the young people in our care and the victims and survivors who need our support."
Msgr. Lynn, 62, who recommended priest assignments to the archbishop of Philadelphia and investigated claims of sexual abuse of minors by clergy from 1992 to 2004, became the first official of the U.S. Catholic Church to be convicted of a felony for his responsibilities in managing priests, some of whom abused children.
His conviction was based on the case of former priest Edward Avery, who admitted he had sexually assaulted a 10-year-old altar boy at his northeast Philadelphia parish in 1999. The former priest, laicized in 2006, is serving a sentence of two-and-a half to five years in prison. Earlier this year, Avery said he never touched the boy and only entered his guilty plea to get a lighter sentence.
The Seletyn opinion acknowledged one of the prosecutors' central claims, which formed the main argument of Philadelphia grand jury reports in 2005 and 2011: that for decades archdiocesan administrators at the highest levels dealt poorly with child sexual assault by some clergy; and that administrators such as Msgr. Lynn appeared to prioritize the "disrepute" of the church over safeguarding children in the church.
But the judge said this was not the issue in the Msgr. Lynn case. Rather, the priest could not be charged, tried and convicted for his actions not to remove priests before they abused children according to a law written after the time in which he served.
A statement by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said the group was "heartsick over this decision" and that "thousands of betrayed Catholics and wounded victims will be disheartened by this news."
Contributing to this report was Matt Gambino in Philadelphia.