Pa. appeals court hears priest’s endangerment case

PHILADELPHIA — A Pennsylvania appeals court explored arguments that a Roman Catholic church official was wrongly convicted for his handling of priest sex-abuse complaints, asking government attorneys pointed questions about their novel prosecution.

Monsignor William Lynn, 62, is serving three to six years in prison after his child-endangerment conviction last year.

Prosecutors argued at trial that Lynn reassigned predators to new parishes as the Philadelphia archdiocese’s secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004. The conviction stems from the case of one priest, Edward Avery, found to have abused a child in 1998 after such a transfer.

Avery’s victim — and therefore Lynn’s victim — was a child Lynn “never met, never knew, never knew existed,” defense lawyer Thomas Bergstrom said Tuesday in Superior Court. The attorney has long argued that the state’s child-endangerment law at the time applied only to parents and caregivers — and was only amended in 2007 to include supervisors like Lynn.

The monsignor, after a two-month trial, has spent about 15 months in prison.

Two of three judges asked if prosecutors hadn’t tried him under the 2007 law. And President Judge John T. Bender asked why dozens of other priest-abuse cases, dating back to the 1940s, were explored at Lynn’s trial. By Bergstrom’s count, 26 of the 32 trial days focused on the “prior bad acts” of the Philadelphia archdiocese.

“The thing that strikes me is the activities of Avery — at least according to what Lynn knew — is not as bad as the other bad acts. They’re not even close,” Bender said.

Assistant District Attorney Hugh J. Burns Jr. disagreed.

“They were probative and relevant to showing (Lynn’s) knowledge and intent,” said Burns, chief of the appeals unit.

Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina allowed those cases into evidence to show what Lynn knew about the church’s handling of sexual-assault complaints. Lynn’s trial revealed to the public that scores of accusations had been buried in locked, secret files at the archdiocese, and not turned over to police.

Lynn once spent months compiling the sex-abuse complaints for the late Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, and made recommendations about what priests should be transferred or sent for therapy.

“The defendant didn’t simply put Avery out there (in new parishes). He was systematically doing it in other cases,” Burns argued Tuesday.

Lynn was the first U.S. church official ever charged or convicted for the handling of clergy-abuse complaints. His supporters believe he was made a scapegoat for the church’s sins, including the two cardinals he served. They were never charged. After Lynn’s trial, Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of a misdemeanor for failing to report a priest with child pornography.

“I did not intend any harm to come to (Avery’s victim). The fact is, my best was not good enough to stop that harm,” Lynn said at his sentencing. “I am a parish priest. I should have stayed (one).”

Sarmina said Lynn “enabled monsters in clerical garb … to destroy the souls of children.”

Avery’s accuser did not come forward until 2009. A policeman’s son with a decade-long heroin addiction, he said that he had been abused by Avery, another priest and a parish teacher. All three have since been convicted. The accuser is seeking damages from the church.

Lynn resides at a minimum security prison in northeast Pennsylvania. He was not entitled to attend Tuesday’s arguments, but a flock of loyal relatives and friends turned out.

“He’s lost 70 pounds. He looks good. He feels good,” Bergstrom said of his client. “If they rule our way, five minutes later, we’ll file a bail motion.”