PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — Common Pleas Court Judge Teresa Sarmina closed the latest chapter in the clergy sexual abuse scandal in Philadelphia by sentencing Msgr. William Lynn to three to six years in state prison.
During the sentencing hearing July 24, after more than two hours of arguments and letters presented from victims and Msgr. Lynn's defense, Sarmina handed down a sentence just shy of the maximum seven years.
The former secretary for clergy, who recommended priest assignments to the archbishop of Philadelphia and investigated claims of sexual abuse of minors by clergy, was found guilty of one felony charge of endangering the welfare of a child June 22.
He became the first official of the U.S. Catholic Church to be convicted of a felony not for abusing a child, or even witnessing it, but for his responsibilities in managing priests, some of whom abused children.
District Attorney Seth Williams said the fact that Msgr. Lynn, 61, was convicted not for abuse made this “a very different case,” one that is “unprecedented in American jurisprudence.”
“We held responsible a man who did not abuse children himself, but who did not do enough to protect children,” Williams said outside the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia.
The priest's defense lawyer, Thomas Bergstrom, incredulously referred to the sentence as “grossly unfair” and “unbelievable.”
“He's being punished for things he did properly: He met with victims, he met with accused priests, he documented everything, he sent it up to the cardinal,” Bergstrom added.
Fellow defense lawyer Jeffrey Lindy told reporters with exasperation that Msgr. Lynn must now report to the State Correctional Institution Graterford, Montgomery County for processing, then to another prison in Camp Hill, Pa.
“After that I don't know,” he said.
Msgr. Lynn's conviction resulted from the actions of a former priest, Edward V. Avery, who last March pleaded guilty to abusing an altar boy in 1990. Avery, who was laicized in 2006, is serving two and a half to five years in prison.
In a statement, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said it remained “committed to protecting children and caring for victims,” while adding that “fair-minded people will question the severity of the heavy, three- to six-year sentence imposed on Msgr. Lynn today. We hope that when this punishment is objectively reviewed, it will be adjusted.
“We pray for Msgr. Lynn and his family at this difficult time,” the statement said.
Williams said the priest was “institutionally responsible” for the suffering of victims of sexual abuse by priests.
Evidence at trial showed that months after becoming secretary for clergy in 1992, Msgr. Lynn took the initiative to compile a list from church archives of known or possibly abusive priests spanning several decades. He presented the list of scores of priests to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who was archbishop of Philadelphia at the time. The cardinal ordered that the list be shredded, but a copy was retained and forgotten in a locked safe at the Archdiocesan Pastoral Center in Philadelphia.
Once he knew of the list and the extent of the clergy sexual abuse problem, Msgr. Lynn should have resigned, Williams said.
Instead, “he locked the list of names away in a vault — names of priests he knew were abusive,” Williams said. “Now he will be locked away for a fraction of that time.”
Bergstrom said Sarmina in her sentencing “didn't follow the facts of the case,” including his contention that priests Msgr. Lynn investigated and sent for treatment “never abused again.”
Lindy contended that even child endangerment convictions in which the guilty person was present and witnessed the offense “never” warrant as stiff a sentence as received by Msgr. Lynn, who did not witness the abuse.
This latest chapter of the clergy sexual abuse scandal may be closed, but the crisis that broke nationally in 2002 and that has embroiled the Archdiocese of Philadelphia ever since is far from over.
Msgr. Lynn's defense team vowed to appeal their client's guilty verdict. Bergstrom, outside the courthouse after the verdict, mentioned the court's decision to try his client on a child endangerment statute, which included supervisors such as Msgr. Lynn, that was only put in place in 2007. Msgr. Lynn left his position in 2004.
Father James J. Brennan, Msgr. Lynn's codefendant at the trial, will have his case retried by the district attorney's office after hanged jury was unable to render a verdict. A hearing to determine a date for the retrial is Aug. 14.
Williams said his office continues to investigate individuals as a result of two grand jury reports in 2005 and 2011.
While he praised recent church efforts to improve outreach services to victims and investigations of accused clergy and church workers, especially under the leadership of former archbishop of Philadelphia Cardinal Justin Rigali and now Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, Williams said the stiff sentence of Msgr. Lynn “sends a message to institutions around the world: they have to take allegations seriously, and not protect the institution.”
In its statement, the archdiocese addressed the broad arc of the crisis.
“From the challenges the church has faced both nationally and locally over the past decade, we understand the full gravity of sexual abuse,” it said. “This year and even this week, Pennsylvania has been the epicenter of this issue, and we know there is legitimate anger in the broad community toward any incident or enabling of sexual abuse. The trial of the past several months has been especially difficult for victims, and we profoundly regret their pain.
“The public humiliation of the church has emphasized the vital lesson that we must be constantly vigilant in our charge to protect the children in our parishes and schools. … We have taken dramatic steps to ensure that all young people in our care are safe, and these efforts will continue even more forcefully now and in the years ahead,” it said.
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— By Matthew Gambino, director and general manager of CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.