Msgr. Lynn’s conviction overturned; court calls for new trial

PHILADELPHIA (CNS) — The landmark trial of Msgr. William Lynn, the first high-ranking American Catholic churchman convicted of a crime in connection with the clergy sexual abuse scandal, will play out again as Pennsylvania Superior Court threw out his July 2012 conviction and ordered a new trial.

On Dec. 22 the Pennsylvania Superior Court threw out the July 2012 conviction of Msgr. William Lynn, the first high-ranking American Catholic churchman convicted of a crime in connection with the clergy sexual abuse scandal, and ordered a new trial. Msgr. Lynn is pictured in a 2012 photo. (CNS photo | Tim Shaffer, Reuters)

The three-judge panel said in its 43-page split opinion Dec. 22 that Common Pleas Judge Teresa Sarmina, who presided over the original trial, erred by admitting evidence of sexual abuse of minors by priests of the Philadelphia Archdiocese in the years before Msgr. Lynn served as secretary for archdiocesan clergy from 1992 to 2004.

In that role, he oversaw priests assigned by Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua to ministry in archdiocesan parishes, schools and institutions. Evidence presented during the three-month trial documented the abuse of minors by some of those priests over the course of many years.

Prosecutors presented evidence to argue that Msgr. Lynn endangered the welfare of a boy by failing to supervise his attacker, former priest Edward Avery.

Msgr. Lynn was convicted during the trial under the state’s child endangerment statute and sentenced to three to six years in prison.

In its opinion, the Superior Court said the common pleas court under Judge Sarmina “abused its discretion by admitting a high volume of unfairly prejudicial other-acts evidence.”

The trial court argued there was value in presenting evidence of a history of abuse in the archdiocese and church administrators’ practice of transferring abusive priests to other assignments.

The “probative value” of the evidence was intended to shed light on Msgr. Lynn’s mindset as secretary for clergy, and that he continued to follow past practice of recommending abusive priests for new assignments, the court said at the time.

The Superior Court disagreed in the value of such evidence.

“A substantial volume of this evidence concerned the bad acts of priests, and the archdiocese’s response thereto, that predated (Msgr. Lynn’s) tenure as secretary by many years, and in some cases, decades,” the opinion read.

The panel argued that the “vast quantity” of evidence prior to 1992 unfairly prejudiced the 12-person jury that convicted Msgr. Lynn on one count of child endangerment.

Although his conviction now has been overturned, the 64-year-old priest remains in custody at the state’s Waymart Correctional Facility in northeast Pennsylvania.

No new trial date or presiding judge has been announced, though Msgr. Lynn’s attorney, Thomas Bergstrom, requested in a legal filing an alternative to Sarmina, according to a published report.

He also sought to have his client freed on bail.

Msgr. Lynn has already served about half of his sentence.

Avery admitted to the crime of abusing an altar boy in 1999 on the eve of his trial in 2012 and is serving a five-year prison sentence.

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Gambino is director and general manager of CatholicPhilly.com, the news website of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.