To its credit, the archdiocese of Philadelphia responded to a Pennsylvania appeals court’s overturning of the criminal conviction of Msgr. William Lynn last week with the statement: “We recognize that today’s news is especially difficult for survivors and their families. We profoundly regret their pain.”
Whether their pain will be alleviated by yesterday’s news that the archdiocese has helped post Lynn’s $250,000 bail may be doubted. (Update: Wherefore, the archdiocese has provided a self-exculpation.) But at least Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput didn’t follow the lead of the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue in acclaiming the man who managed sexual abuse cases for the archdiocese for many years and denouncing those who wanted to hold him accountable.
“The guilty parties that worked overtime to convict an innocent man—they include attorneys, judges, newspapers, professional “victims’ groups,” activists, TV talking heads—have been disgraced,” Donohue wrote. “Msgr. Lynn spent 18 months in prison because of dishonest people who harbor an anti-Catholic agenda. We expect he will soon be released. God bless him.”
To understand what innocence means in this context, It is important to understand the basis for the appeals court’s action. The statute under which Lynn was convicted applied to “a parent, guardian or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age” — and the court disagreed with the prosecution’s theory, accepted by the trial judge, that Lynn had supervisory responsibility for the welfare of the child abused by Rev. Edward V. Avery. Yet it made sufficiently clear that the conviction would have stood had Lynn been charged under the statute as it was revised in 2007, extending responsibility explicitly to “a person that employs or supervises such a person”:
Constrained by our standard of review, we cannot dispute that the Commonwealth presented more than adequate evidence to sufficiently demonstrate that Appellant the prioritized the Archdiocese’s reputation over the safety of potential victims of sexually abusive priests and, by inference, that the same prioritization dominated Appellant’s handling of Avery…
Again, the Commonwealth provided ample evidence regarding Appellant’s pattern of intentionally mishandling other sexually abusive priests with the intent to shelter both the priests and the larger church from disrepute, thus giving rise to a permissible inference for the jury to draw that Appellant acted in conformity with that intent when dealing with Avery.
Let’s take an example of Lynn’s behavior brought forward at trial and cited by the appeals court. After complaints of abuse were leveled against him, Avery was sent to a hospital for treatment and evaluation, and the treatment team recommended that Avery receive an assignment where he would have nothing to do with children. Nevertheless, Lynn proposed that he be made an associate pastor at a church with a grade school — a proposal that was nixed by then-Archbishop Anthony J. Bevilacqua.
Lynn may deserve to get out of prison, but I’d hesitate to use the word “innocent” to describe him. Somewhere, some time, there needs to be some real accountability for those who — year after year, victim after victim — “prioritized” the reputation of the church and its misbehaving clergy over the safety of those who are actually innocent. And whether or not it comes via criminal prosecution, it’s got to come from the church itself.
As Jason Berry, the writer broke the first big abuse story three decades ago, puts it in a powerful new article on Global Post, “The challenge for Pope Francis is how to change structures of the church that provide a wall of security for bishops and cardinals who tolerated the rape of innocents and continue to use these church structures to protect themselves.”