The landmark trial of the first high-ranking American Catholic churchman convicted of a crime in connection with the clerical abuse scandal will play out again after Pennsylvania Superior Court threw out his July 2012 conviction and ordered a new trial.
The three-judge panel said in its 43-page split opinion that Common Pleas Judge Teresa Sarmina, who presided over the original trial, erred by admitting evidence of sexual abuse of minors by priests of Philadelphia archdiocese in the years before Mgr William Lynn served as secretary for archdiocesan clergy from 1992 to 2004.
In that role, he oversaw priests assigned by Cardinal Anthony 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 Mgr Lynn endangered the welfare of a boy by failing to supervise his attacker, former priest Edward Avery.
Mgr 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 Mgr 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 [Mgr 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 Mgr 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 Mgr 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.
Mgr 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.