Monsignor William J. Lynn, the first U.S. Catholic official convicted for covering up the sexual abuse of children, was sentenced to 3-6 years in prison on Tuesday (July 24).
Lynn, 61, has been in jail since his June 22 conviction on endangering the welfare of a child. Prosecutors were seeking the maximum penalty, up to seven years.
“You knew full well what was right, Monsignor Lynn, but you chose wrong,” said Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina.
Sarmina told Lynn that he enabled “monsters in clerical garb … to destroy the souls of children, to whom you turned a hard heart.”
Lynn was head of priest personnel for a dozen years and was one of the highest-ranking officials in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
He worked alongside former Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, a powerful churchman who died earlier this year just before the trial began.
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 had previously been held accountable in criminal court.
He was charged with recommending that James J. Brennan and another former priest, Edward Avery, be allowed to live or work in parishes in the 1990s despite indications that they might abuse children. Avery later sexually assaulted a 10-year-old altar boy. He pleaded guilty before the trial and is serving up to five years in state prison.
Brennan was on trial along with Lynn but the jury could not reach verdicts on the attempted rape and endangerment charges against him; prosecutors said Monday that they plan to retry Brennan.
The same jury nearly deadlocked on the charges against Lynn, but eventually convicted him of a single charge of endangerment and acquitted him on two other counts.
Lynn’s lawyers had argued that sentencing the priest to jail would be “cruel and unusual.” Prosecutors said that Lynn demonstrated an “apparent lack of remorse for anyone but himself.”
Lynn told Sarmina that he did his best to mitigate the damage done by the abusive priests and repeated his argument that he lacked the authority to do anything more.
“But the fact is, my best was not good enough – and for that I'm truly sorry,” he said.
Joelle Casteix of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said she was pleased that Lynn would go to prison.
The sentence, she said, “sends a powerful message: cover-up child sex crimes and you’ll go to jail. Not house arrest. Not community service. Not a fine. You’ll be locked up.”
Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput did not comment after Lynn’s sentencing on Tuesday but the archdiocese released a statement questioning “the severity of the heavy, three to six year sentence” and voicing hope that “it will be adjusted.”
“We pray for Msgr. Lynn and his family at this difficult time,” the statement concluded.
The statement did acknowledge the “legitimate anger in the broad community toward any incident or enabling of sexual abuse.” It said the trial “has been especially difficult for victims, and we profoundly regret their pain.” It also pledged to continue reforms to protect children.
Tuesday’s sentencing does not necessarily mean the end of the case for Lynn, or the end of the run of ugly headlines about clergy sexual abuse that have plagued the Catholic Church for more than a decade.
Lynn’s lawyers said they plan to appeal his conviction, and legal experts say he could have a strong case. Moreover, victims advocates and others say they want to see Lynn defrocked, or “laicized,” just as the church now does to most priests who abuse children.
Nicholas Cafardi, a canon and civil lawyer and an expert on the Catholic clergy abuse scandal, said that Lynn could have committed a crime under church law – specifically canon 1389, which allows for laicizing a “person who abuses an ecclesiastical power.”
But Cafardi said it is unlikely that a church court would take such a step, and he said it appears the church’s three-year statute of limitations for that violation has already passed.
That means Lynn is likely to be back in the archdiocese as a priest.
Lynn’s case could be eclipsed this September. Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri, will be tried on charges that he failed to report suspicions that one of his priests might be an abuser. If Finn is convicted, he would be the first bishop ever found guilty in the abuse scandal.
“If Finn gets convicted, that is certainly going to send a message” to other church officials, said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and political scientist who is a fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
David Gibson is an award-winning religion journalist, author and filmmaker. He writes for RNS and until recently covered the religion beat for AOL's Politics Daily. He blogs at Commonweal magazine, and has written two books on Catholic topics, the latest a biography of Pope Benedict XVI.