The Philadelphia judge who presided over the first trial in the country of a Catholic Church official charged with endangering the welfare of children abused by other priests said that it was necessary to admit into evidence several unconnected files of sexually abusive priests so the jury could decide if the defendant had disregarded the danger posed by abusive priests.
Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, writing in a 235-page opinion required under procedural rules in the appeal of Monsignor William J. Lynn, said that it was appropriate to admit evidence about 20 priests whose files Lynn reviewed as part of his human resources role with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
That evidence was not offered to show Lynn’s propensity for criminality, but for other purposes of the jury deciding if prosecutors had proven Lynn’s knowledge concerning when priests posed a danger to children, proven Lynn’s motive to uphold and advance the policy of shielding the church from scandal over protecting children, and proven Lynn’s intent to protect the reputation of the church as a moral institution even if that meant jeopardizing the welfare of parishioners, the judge said. The evidence also was appropriately admitted to show the complete history of the case, Sarmina said.
The probative value of the evidence outweighed its prejudicial effect because the jury had to make a decision about Lynn’s state of mind in order to decide if he was guilty of endangering the welfare of children, and the "other acts" evidence was the only way to demonstrate what Lynn knew and intended, the judge opined.
The fact that the jury acquitted Lynn of two of the three charges was an indication that it was not so impassioned that its verdict was irrational, Sarmina said.
Lynn was responsible for reviewing allegations of sexual abuse involving priests as the archdiocese’s secretary of clergy from 1992 until 2004. He was convicted last June 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 pled guilty to abusing D.G. In a separate trial of two co-defendants who had their cases served from Lynn’s trial, Avery testified that he only pled guilty in order to get a shorter prison sentence.
About two years into the job, Lynn decided to conduct a comprehensive review of the 323 priests who had files in the archdiocese’s secret archives of clergy who had been in serious trouble for sexual abuse or other major infractions.
Lynn identified 35 priests against whom sexual complaints had been made, and he labeled three of the priests as pedophiles, 12 as guilty of sexual misconduct with minors, and 20 as having had allegations of sexual misconduct with minors made against them but for which there was no conclusive evidence.
Avery was the first name on the list of priests who were guilty of sexual misconduct with minors, but just three months before, Lynn facilitated Avery going to live at a parish in which there was a grade school attached. Avery’s day job was to be a chaplain at a hospital, which was an assignment made to keep Avery away from kids.
Sarmina reasoned that "the evidence relating to each priest would contribute to the jury’s ability to conduct a nuanced evaluation as to whether the defendant knew the danger presented by priests who had abused children in the past, whether the defendant knowingly put D.G. [who Lynn was convicted of endangering his welfare by assigning Avery to the parish in which D.G. was an altar server] and other unnamed minors to whom Avery had access in jeopardy, and whether the defendant intended that sexually abusive priests operate within the archdiocese without supervision."
The admission of 20 of those files curated by Lynn and another priest also illuminated his motive, Sarmina said. For example, the files revealed that the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua told Father Peter Dunne that his top concerns as an archbishop was, one, scandal, two, good of the church, and three, Dunne, according to the opinion. That statement was made, Sarmina said, less than two months after the archdiocese learned that Dunne had told treatment providers at St. John Vianney that he had beaten the system.
"One of the defendant’s seminal lessons as secretary for clergy was that the highest ranking individual within the archdiocese considered avoidance of scandal to be his top priority, even in the face of evidence suggesting that a priest under his control posed a threat to sexual abuse in the future," Sarmina said. "The defendant also learned that the ‘welfare of victims’ was not even seen as a cause worth mentioning. The secret archives revealed that the defendants’ predecessor breathed life into Cardinal Bevilacqua’s priorities by working to protect the church from scandal even if that meant putting children in harm’s way."
In another piece of legal analysis, Sarmina addressed denying defense motions in which Lynn’s lawyers argued that the version of the endangering the welfare of children statute under which Lynn was charged did not cover supervisors who did not directly supervise children.
Sarmina stated that the statute criminalized parents, guardians and "other person[s] supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age" by knowingly violating a duty of care, protection or support.
Sarmina reasoned that the difference between a person supervising the welfare of a child and a supervisor of a child is "syntactically small, but far from trivial."
The judge also said that since Lynn was supervising the welfare of children, his actions could be found to be criminal under the EWOC statutory language.
That interpretation is consistent with the statutory language as well as case law requiring that statutes designed to protect children must be read broadly, Sarmina said.
"To hold that the secretary for clergy — whose daily work involved receiving allegations of clergy sex abuse and reacting to such allegations for the protection of church youth — was not overseeing or managing the welfare of a child would run completely contrary to our Supreme Court’s directive to interpret this protective statute broadly," Sarmina said.
In analyzing the statutory language regarding duty, Sarmina said Lynn owed a duty to D.G. and any other children or teens who Avery could have abused because of his ability to control Avery’s assignments and where Avery lived.
Sarmina also said there was evidence that Lynn’s motive was to perpetuate a system of protecting abusive priests over their sexual-abuse victims.
Lynn "followed in his predecessors’ footsteps, perpetuating the system that he inherited," according to the opinion.
For example, Sarmina cited the situation of Father Nicholas Cudemo, who Lynn knew had been accused of abusing at least nine different girls, and whom Lynn instructed to comply with restrictions on his ministry "’for the good of the church and the avoidance of scandal,’" according to the opinion.
(Copies of the 235-page opinion in Commonwealth v. Lynn, PICS No. 13-0983, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •