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Court overturns conviction of Philadelphia priest jailed in landmark case

Catholic World News - December 27, 2013

In a unanimous ruling, a Pennsylvania appellate court has overturned the 2012 conviction of Msgr. William Lynn, who served as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s vicar of clergy from 1992 to 2004.

Msgr. Lynn had been the highest-ranking official in the Church in America to be jailed, not for abusing children but for allegedly failing to take action against abusers.

But the Pennsylvania court found that “the state’s child-endangerment law at the time of Lynn's conviction applied to parents and caregivers but did not extend to institutional supervisors,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

“When Monsignor Lynn's sentence was announced last summer, the Archdiocese reemphasized that it has changed dramatically since the events over ten years ago that were at the center of the trial and reaffirmed that dramatic steps have been taken to ensure that all young people in our care find a safe and nurturing environment,” the archdiocese said in a public statement responding to the court's ruling. “It also expressed a hope that the nature of the sentence imposed on Monsignor Lynn would be objectively reviewed. That has happened.”

“The decision by the Superior Court to overturn this conviction does not and will not alter the Church's commitment to assist and support the survivors of sexual abuse on their journey toward healing or our dedicated efforts to ensure that all young people in our care are safe,” the statement continued.

After the archdiocese received a report in 1992 that Father Edward Avery had abused a minor in the late 1970s, Msgr. Lynn sent him to a treatment center and later assigned Avery to another parish. Cardinal Justin Rigali, who served as Archbishop of Philadelphia from 2003 to 2011, deemed the 1992 allegation credible in 2003, and Avery was subsequently laicized.

Avery -- along with another priest and a school teacher -- was subsequently accused of abusing a minor in his new assignment. “The accuser, now a gaunt young man, has battled heroin abuse since his teens and still has a drug case pending,” the Associated Press later reported. “And details of his story changed frequently over the years, even about whether [the teacher] raped him in the classroom or in a parked car.”

Avery later pleaded guilty to abusing the accuser and began to serve a prison sentence of 2-1/2 to five years in March 2012. Following Avery’s guilty plea, Msgr. Lynn was convicted in June 2012 of endangering the welfare of a child and sentenced to three to six years in prison.

When Avery took the stand in January 2013 in the trial of the teacher and the other priest, however, he recanted his guilty plea, said he did not know the accuser, and said that he had accepted a plea agreement to avoid a prison sentence of up to 60 years. The teacher, Bernard Shero, was later sentenced to eight to 16 years in prison, and the priest, Father Charles Engelhardt, was sentenced to six to 12 years.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: normnuke - Jan. 02, 2014 5:08 PM ET USA

    Too little attention in this story has been paid to the role of the "treatment center" in this unbelievably sordid affair (and many others). Poor as I am, I would bet my house that the 'treatment center' was the notorious St. Luke's. There is a bunch of people who deserve jail.

  • Posted by: Savonarola - Jan. 02, 2014 10:57 AM ET USA

    The archdiocese has apparently now claimed that "the nature of the SENTENCE" was objectively reviewed [and, by implication, affected]. This is not what happened. The court found that the law at the time did not apply to institutional supervisors. Surprising that the archdiocese would put out this sort of spin since the sentence was not related to the decision.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jan. 01, 2014 10:05 PM ET USA

    I too believe that both the interests of the Church and those of the larger society would be better served were Lynn to remain behind bars. Unfortunately, across the country many who condoned far more criminality than he were never brought before the bar of justice. And many of those men given a pass by prosecutors, it must be said with great embarrassment, wear the miter of Catholic bishops.

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Dec. 31, 2013 2:46 PM ET USA

    While I appreciate that the courts are ruling on a matter of law, I also believe that justice would be best served by Msgr. Lynn's incarceration, both for his own actions and as a way of discouraging similar behavior by other diocesan officials.

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