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Monsignor William J. Lynn at a previous court appearance (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments over the conviction of Monsignor William J. Lynn, the first Catholic Church administrative official convicted of endangering the welfare of children abused by other priests.

In December 2013, a unanimous three-judge Superior Court panel in Commonwealth v. Lynn reversed the conviction and discharged Lynn.

Lynn’s lawyers had argued following his conviction that the trial judge had refused to address the defense argument that a pre-amended version of Pennsylvania’s law criminalizing endangerment of the welfare of children did not apply in the case.

Judge John T. Bender, writing for the court, agreed, saying Lynn was not the direct supervisor of any of the alleged victims, but instead supervised the direct supervisors of the alleged victims.

Therefore, he was not covered as a principal under the pre-amended EWOC statute, Bender said.

In addition, while Bender declined to address whether accomplice to EWOC is a cognizable offense under Pennsylvania law, he found that, even if it is, the evidence was insufficient to convict Lynn as an accomplice because the prosecution failed to show Lynn acted with the “intent of promoting or facilitating” an EWOC offense.

“Having determined that the evidence was not sufficient to support appellant’s conviction for EWOC either as a principal or as an accomplice, we are compelled to reverse appellant’s judgment of sentence,” Bender said.

Bender was joined by Judge Christine Donohue and Senior Judge John L. Musmanno.

In a one-page order issued Thursday, the Supreme Court agreed to take up the questions of whether the evidence was sufficient to convict Lynn either as a principal or as an accomplice to EWOC.

Counsel for Lynn, Thomas A. Bergstrom of Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney in Philadelphia, said Thursday that he and his client “will continue to fight this battle for sure.”

A spokesperson for the Philadelphia Office of the District Attorney could not immediately be reached.

Lynn was responsible for reviewing allegations of sexual abuse involving priests as the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s secretary of clergy from 1992 until 2004. He was convicted of endangering the welfare of D.G. by his role in assigning D.G.’s abuser to the parish in which D.G. served as an altar server.

Defrocked priest Edward V. Avery pleaded guilty to abusing D.G. In a separate trial of two co-defendants who had their cases severed from Lynn’s trial, Avery testified that he only pleaded guilty in order to get a shorter prison sentence.

The Legal does not name confirmed or alleged victims of abuse.

According to Bender, the pre-amended version of the EWOC statute, 18 Pa.C.S. Section 4304, applied only to parents, guardians and others charged with “‘supervising the welfare of a child.’”

The statute was amended in 2007 to include not only a parent, guardian or other person supervising a child, but also someone who employs or supervises such a person. That version did not apply in Lynn’s case, Bender said.

Bender said Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina’s finding in her opinion that the phrase “the welfare of” in the pre-amended EWOC statute meant the law was applicable to people other than a child’s direct supervisors was “not a reasonable construction because it adds ambiguity where none need exist.”

Bender said the pre-amended statute required “that, for a person who is not a parent or a guardian of the endangered child to be subject to criminal liability, he must at least be engaged in the supervision, or be responsible for the supervision, of ‘a child.’”

“In the context of the phrase, ‘person supervising the welfare of a child,’ the term ‘welfare’ does not eviscerate the requirement of supervision,” Bender said. “Rather, the statute endeavors to protect a child’s overall well-being, such as to include the emotional, psychological, and overall health of the child.”

According to Bender, the use of the term “welfare” by the legislature “operates to make clear that supervision encompasses more than protection from physical harm or the risk of physical harm.”

“Thus, the plain language of the pre-amended EWOC statute requires proof, as an element of the offense, that the accused was a supervisor of an endangered child victim when the conduct or condition giving rise to the offense occurred,” Bender said.

Bender said Sarmina “relied to an excessive extent” on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s 1976 ruling in Commonwealth v. Mack.

While the Mack court held that the EWOC statute is not vague but rather intentionally imprecise in order to encompass a wide range of conduct, Bender noted that neither the Superior Court nor the Supreme Court has ever affirmed a conviction for EWOC where the defendant was not a direct supervisor to the endangered child.

Bender instead pointed to the Superior Court’s 1998 ruling in Commonwealth v. Halye, in which the court reversed an EWOC conviction because the prosecution failed to show that the defendant actually supervised the endangered children.

Bender said reference to the Halye decision was “noticeably absent” from Sarmina’s opinion and called her interpretation of the pre-amended EWOC statute “fundamentally flawed.”
Turning to whether Lynn should have been convicted as an accomplice to EWOC, Bender declined to address whether that is a cognizable offense under Pennsylvania law, noting that no published Pennsylvania cases have ever addressed the issue.

Bender instead found that, even if it is a cognizable offense, the prosecution failed to show that Lynn had any specific knowledge of Avery’s plans to molest children when he assigned him to the parish where the alleged abuse occurred.

“Constrained by our standard of review, we cannot dispute that the commonwealth presented more than adequate evidence to sufficiently demonstrate that appellant 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,” Bender said. “Nevertheless, we do not believe such a showing is sufficient to demonstrate intent to promote or facilitate an EWOC offense.”

Zack Needles can be contacted at 215-557-2493 or zneedles@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @ZNeedlesTLI. •