Among Catholics, anger and sorrow after the Lynn verdict

Joellen Layne: Church on notice.
Joellen Layne: Church on notice. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 24, 2012

As news circulated Friday afternoon that a jury had found Msgr. William J. Lynn guilty of child endangerment, many around the region praised the decision as fair, while some found it too gentle and a few maintained that the priest should have been set free.

"He only got one count?" asked Erin McGonigal, 31, who gasped when told of the verdict.

"What about all the kids, all the people who suffered?" she asked, standing outside Immaculate Mary nursing home in Northeast Philadelphia. She expressed doubt that Lynn would get the maximum prison sentence of seven years.

Her mother, Marybeth McGonigal, 57, said Lynn had officiated at her wedding in 1980 at St. Bernard's parish in Frankford. Although she thought he was likable and "hip" at the time, she said she now found it "scary" that he married her and her husband.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams was "absolutely right" to put Lynn on trial, she said, adding, "Those poor kids."

Lynn, 61, was found guilty on one charge of endangering the welfare of children in connection with his duties as secretary for clergy in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004. He was acquitted on two other charges.

Prosecutors charged that Lynn put children in harm's way by recommending the parish assignments of priests he knew had sexually abused children.

The jury could not reach a verdict on the charges against his codefendant, the Rev. James J. Brennan, who faced two counts of sexual assault on a 14-year-old boy in the 1990s.

At St. Joseph's parish in Downingtown, where Lynn was pastor until his indictment last year, reaction to the guilty verdict was subdued.

Patricia Colombini, 73, entered the sanctuary late in the afternoon to light a candle for Lynn and the Catholic Church, which she described as "a beautiful church" that "needs to be cleaned up."

Colombini said she did not feel qualified to offer a view on the verdict: "I don't know if the man is a scapegoat or what."

Parishioner Rose Graveno called Lynn "a great man, a wonderful person," and an outstanding priest who "doesn't deserve" to go to prison.

A woman visiting from another parish agreed.

"I don't want to see him go to jail," said the woman, who declined to give her name.

But if he did commit crimes, she added, he should not be spared prison.

Outside the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Center City, John Barone of Rochester, N.Y., said Friday's verdict "puts people on notice that no matter how high you are, you cannot shield yourself with your collar."

A physician's assistant who graduated from Hahnemann University Hospital two decades ago, Barone said such a verdict was "a long time in coming - to finally hold someone in the hierarchy accountable."

Of 10 people interviewed outside the basilica Friday afternoon, most said they did not accept Lynn's defense that he had simply followed the orders of Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua.

"If you know an order is flagrantly wrong, then you can disobey," said 67-year-old Kit Crissey, who spent 30 years in the Navy Reserve.

A Protestant who teaches English to foreign adults at St. Joseph's University, Crissey called Lynn's position as clergy secretary under Bevilacqua a classic case of "if you obey, you keep your job. If you don't, you're finished."

But, he added, "when it comes to the health and safety of children, to just shuffle the priests around is a mistake."

Brandon Reid, 31, of South Philadelphia, said he was "surprised that the verdict wasn't more overwhelming in the direction of putting people in prison."

"It's unfortunate not to see more people held accountable for their actions," he said.

Joellen Layne, 65, a nonpracticing Catholic from Flourtown, said she believed the verdict would put the leadership of the Catholic Church on notice.

"The church tends not to react to things; they bury their heads in the sand," said Layne, who was escorting visitors from California on a tour of the basilica.

Lynn was wrong, she said, to assert that he was just following orders. "As a supervisor, you have to be a leader and mentor; you can't just close your eyes to things."

Many of those interviewed noted that the verdict came as a jury weighed the fate of former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, charged with multiple counts of sexually assaulting young boys.

"These things have been going on for so long," said Maggie Milgrim, 57, of New York City, who said both cases were being reported on extensively in her city.

"Even though I'm Catholic, it angers me to read the stories about this," she said, "and also to read about the cover-ups."

Contact David O'Reilly at 610-313-8111 or

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