Conviction of Msgr. Lynn was a watershed event

Posted: June 26, 2012

GUILTY AS charged (although only on one of three counts): Msgr. William J. Lynn.

Guilty but not charged: Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.

In a watershed decision in Philadelphia on Friday, a jury convicted (for the first time ever!) a Catholic Church official of child endangerment for taking part in a cover-up of priest abuse.

In a breathtaking coincidence, eight hours later and a few hundred miles away, former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of 43 counts of child sexual abuse. The swift decision, which followed a trial that got much more publicity than the Philadelphia proceedings, understandably dominated the rest of the day's news cycle.

The Philadelphia District Attorney's Office managed to prove only one count against Lynn, the former archdiocesan secretary of clergy, to the jury's satisfaction. Lynn was acquitted of another child-endangerment charge and a charge of conspiracy. (The jury deadlocked on both charges of abuse and conspiracy against the Rev. James J. Brennan.)

But this decidedly "mixed verdict" contains far-reaching implications: The two-month trial already represents a profound change in the archdiocese's usual response to charges like these. The threat of prison can do that, even though Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina made a questionable legal call when she revoked Lynn's bail Friday, jailing him immediately. There's no evidence the monsignor is a flight risk, supposedly the main consideration when it comes to bail.

But there's no getting around the fact that Lynn now is a convicted felon and should be incarcerated — if not now, then eventually. D.A. Seth Williams is on target when he calls that a powerful message to any church official unsure about his responsibility to report suspected abusers to the police.

Even more notable was the strategy employed by the monsignor's own defense team (which was paid by the archdiocese). It was, simply put: The cardinal did it, aided and abetted by other members of the church hierarchy. Their argument was buttressed by a list of 35 priests with credible charges of child abuse prepared by Lynn in 1994 — and soon ordered shredded by Bevilacqua in an unmistakable obstruction of justice. Both documents mysteriously appeared less than two weeks after Bevilacqua's death.

So here was the defense's own lawyers attributing an "evil" conspiracy orchestrated by the cardinal while painting Lynn as an innocent "scapegoat" for "the sins of all these fathers."

The jury was right not to buy all of it. Lynn admitted on the witness stand that he knew that at least one priest, the Rev. Edward Avery, was guilty of abuse but did not report him to police. Yet compare this argument to the archdiocese's previous response to compelling evidence of abuse in a 2005 grand-jury report. When it had little fear of prosecution because the statute of limitations had run out, church officials termed the report "vile," with thinly-veiled accusations of anti-Catholic bigotry against former D.A. Lynne Abraham.

The memo and the shredding are persuasive evidence that church officials knew the bigotry charge was bogus when they were making it — and that's something to remember if, in the future, it gets trotted out again. n

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