Convicted priest Monsignor William Lynn deserves bail

File photo: A Philadelphia judge on Monday denied a motion for bail pending appeal for Msgr. William J. Lynn, who declined to attend today's hearing..
File photo: A Philadelphia judge on Monday denied a motion for bail pending appeal for Msgr. William J. Lynn, who declined to attend today's hearing..
Posted: August 10, 2012

THE LAW is not always just. Sometimes, it can be downright spiteful.

Take the case of Monsignor William Lynn, the first (but probably not the last) high-ranking clergyman to be convicted of child endangerment.

To our knowledge, Lynn never laid a finger on an altar boy, never downloaded porn to his computer, and never did any of the other horrific things that we now know happened over the past few decades. But he is being held responsible for those who did those things, because he didn't do enough to protect the innocent from in-house predators. I get that there is a desire to hold someone accountable for the pain and grief caused by ignorance and omission.

What I don't get is how a law that was never intended to apply retroactively could be used to convict a man who had a right to due process. The D.A.'s Office stretched it to its definitional limit by applying it to a supervisor like Lynn, particularly since the law in effect when the defendant was supposed to have looked the other way never contemplated that kind of prosecution.

But cases against Catholic clergy seem to receive special treatment by zealous and politically savvy prosecutors.

That was on view all over again this past week, when Judge Teresa Sarmina denied a defense request for bail during the pendency of Lynn's appeal. Let's set aside the fact that this appeal has a fairly solid chance of success before the Superior Court of Pennsylvania. Let's ignore the fact that Lynn is beyond retirement age, is not in the best of health and has no prior criminal record. Let's shut our eyes to the fact that the D.A.'s Office made a political statement with this prosecution.

Let's just look at what you're supposed to look at when deciding to grant bail: whether or not the defendant is a flight risk. And if you answer that question with some honesty, you realize that keeping an elderly clergyman locked up when drug dealers routinely get (and make) bail is preposterous.

In denying Lynn's request, Sarmina cited the fact that "technically" under the law someone who is sentenced to more than two years in prison is not entitled to bail. But bail has always been a discretionary matter, and the judge could have decided to grant release based her own determination that the cleric wasn't going to hightail it out of Dodge. She could have confiscated his passport. She could have set the dollar amount at such an exorbitant rate that forfeiting it would have been out of the question. She could have considered that Lynn has lived in this area for decades, was never before convicted of a crime, had come to court every day during his trial, and had numerous character witnesses. She could have looked at the fact that he was as unlikely to flee to the Vatican as the president of the American Atheist Society.

But she didn't. And that made Patrick Blessington, the lead prosecutor in the matter, quite content. Responding to the request for bond, he said, "This is absolute ignorance of the law … it's literally a waste of the court's time."

But apparently, Sarmina agreed that it was a waste of her time, because she decided that Lynn had better get used to his new digs in Camp Hill.

Normally, I have little patience with defendants who claim they've been treated unfairly by the system. But every now and then I find myself arguing on behalf of a convicted criminal. And I do it this time because I'm fairly certain this criminal was convicted at least in part because he represented a church that people have unfairly come to see as the symbol of institutional abuse. I suppose that's understandable. It might even be OK to those who see abusers behind every confessional curtain.

But I have to wonder when we'll start treating people as individuals and stop making them pay for the sins of others.

Maybe we can start by letting a priest post bail.

Christine Flowers is a lawyer. Send email to cflowers1961@gmail.com.

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