(RNS) A Philadelphia priest was convicted Friday (June 22) of one count of child endangerment, becoming the first cleric in the Catholic Church’s long-running clergy abuse scandal to be tried and found guilty of shielding molesters.
Monsignor William Lynn, 61, was acquitted of conspiracy and a second endangerment charge after a three-month trial that had seemed on the verge of a hung jury two days earlier.
After a day off on Thursday, the jury of seven men and five women returned to deliberations Friday and by early afternoon announced the conviction on a single charge against Lynn. The jurors said they were deadlocked on attempted rape and endangerment charges against Lynn's codefendant, the Rev. James J. Brennan.
Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina declared a mistrial on the Brennan charges, which means prosecutors could decide to try him again.
Lynn, who was head of priest personnel in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for 12 years, was charged with recommending that Brennan and another priest, Edward Avery, be allowed to live or work in parishes in the 1990s despite indications that they might abuse children.
Avery pleaded guilty before the trial to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old altar boy in 1999 and is serving 2-1/2 to 5 years in state prison.
The charges against Lynn drew more intense scrutiny because so much was at stake.
Lynn was the first church official to be tried for what many see as an unaddressed crime in the decades-long tally of abuse throughout the church: no U.S. bishops or officials who covered up and enabled the abuse has ever been held accountable in criminal court. Both prosecutors and victims advocates claimed victory.
“This day – and the relief, vindication and healing it gives clergy sex abuse victims – is long overdue,” said Barbara Dorris of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “The guilty verdict sends a strong and clear message that shielding and enabling predator priests is a heinous crime that threatens families, communities and children, and must be punished as such.”
Terence McKiernan, head of BishopAccountability.org, another victim advocacy group, called Lynn’s conviction “a watershed moment in the Catholic abuse crisis.”
“It is a warning to other church officials and a model to prosecutors nationwide,” McKiernan said. “Because of the Lynn verdict, bishops and church officials are now accountable – they are no longer immune from judgment and punishment.”
Lead prosecutor Patrick Blessington, appearing angry at Lynn's acquittals, immediately moved to revoked the priest’s bail – a motion the judge approved – and said he would seek the maximum seven-year prison term when Lynn is sentenced on Aug. 13. Sarmina did say she would consider a motion for house arrest.
"He deserves to go to prison like the criminal he is," Blessington said. Lynn sat quietly at the defense table and his face reddened.
During the trial, jurors and the public heard graphic testimony form nearly 20 victims of abuse at the hands of priests in the five-county archdiocese, which includes about 1.5 million Catholics. They also saw thousands of church records about clergy abuse that had been hidden away by Lynn and others, mainly during the tenure of former Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.
Lynn's defense team argued that he was ordered by Bevilacqua not to say anything about the abuse and had no authority to removed priests from the ministry.
"I did my best with what I could do," Lynn testified in his defense. His lawyers said they will appeal.
Prosecutors argued that did not prevent him from reporting the assaults to authorities, and they said his consistent efforts to downplay abuse claims and thwart inquiries was criminal.
Bevilacqua, who was archbishop from 1988 to his retirement in 2003, died in January on the eve of the trial, and many saw Lynn as something of a stand-in for the man prosecutors wanted to charge but could not.
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput did not make any direct comment on Friday’s verdict, and the archdiocese issued a statement that did not mention Lynn but simply pledged greater vigilance, honesty and reform to ensure the safety of children and to restore faith in the church.
“This has been a difficult time for all Catholics, especially victims of sexual abuse,” the statement said. “The Archdiocese of Philadelphia offers a heartfelt apology to all victims of clergy sexual abuse.”
The financially-strapped archdiocese has spent close to $12 million on legal expenses on this case since 2011 and on Thursday announced sweeping cuts to try to close a huge budget gap.
It is unclear how the conviction might affect Lynn’s status as a priest. While clergy who abuse children are routinely laicized, or defrocked, there appear to be no provisions in canon law to take such a step against someone in Lynn’s position. Moreover, there is no indication that a church court, which would deliberate in secret, has or would take any action against Lynn despite the criminal conviction.
The Lynn verdict is also not the last word on child abuse cases in the Catholic Church or elsewhere.
Across the state, a jury is deliberating the fate of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, who is charged with sexually abusing 10 boys in a case that has rocked college football and a program that had the kind of status in Pennsylvania culture that the Catholic Church once enjoyed.
In New York, meanwhile, charges that the Orthodox Jewish community is routinely covering up child sexual abuse are making headlines.
And in Missouri, Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph is scheduled to go on trial in September on charges that he failed to report suspicions that one of his priests might be an abuser. The priest is facing child pornography charges, but if Finn is convicted, he would be the first bishop ever found guilty in the abuse scandal.