Analysis of the Appellate Legal Issues in the Lynn Priest Sex Abuse Case in the PA Supreme Court


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How the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Will Rule in the Lynn Priest Sex Abuse Case

It may be a year or so before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issues its ruling in Philadelphia’s notorious priest sex abuse case. The case involves a supervising priest (Monsignor Lynn), several Philadelphia area priests and one Catholic school teacher. Click here to read more about the history of this case.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will probably decide the case next year. However, in the meantime, below is a discussion of the legal issues and how the court is likely to rule.

The first issue the court is considering: Did the evidence prove endangering the welfare of a child even though Msgr. Lynn did not have direct contact with children?

Probable Answer: Unknown, lean toward no.

The argument here centers on analysis of Pennsylvania’s endangering the welfare of a child law, the pre-2007 version. The pre-2007 version applies because the acts at issue in the case occurred prior to 2007. In 2006, the statute was amended (effective in 2007) in the wake of a 2002 Philadelphia Grand Jury report which raked the Archdiocese of Philadelphia over the coals for knowingly protecting sexually abusive priests. The current law specifically applies to those who employ/supervise individuals who supervise the welfare of children.

The issue is whether the pre-2007 version of the law requires direct contact with children, even though not specifically mentioned in the language of the law. Prior to the Lynn case, the Pennsylvania Superior Court examined the endangering the welfare of a child law in several cases. In at least one case, the Superior Court overturned a conviction where the evidence simply didn’t support that the defendant supervised the welfare of the child at issue. For example, a house guest’s conviction was overturned because there was no evidence he held any kind of supervisory role over children who lived in the house. In another case, the Superior Court basically held that the statute requires direct supervision over a child, i.e., care or control of the victim.

Related: Parties in a Priest/Pastor Sexual Abuse Lawsuit

Then, there are other cases in which no direct supervision requirement is mentioned or required. For example, in one case, the Superior Court held that a conviction for endangering the welfare of a child requires proof of the following:

(1) the accused is aware of his/her duty to protect the child;

(2) the accused is aware that the child is in circumstances that could threaten the child’s physical or psychological welfare; and

(3) the accused has either failed to act or has taken action so lame or meager that such actions cannot reasonably be expected to protect the child’s welfare.

See Commonwealth v. Wallace (Pennsylvania Superior Court, 2002).

Despite these discrepancies in case law, it is highly likely the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will agree with the Superior Court, mostly because of the principle of stare decisis, which literally means, let the decision stand. The more recent court cases have held that direct supervision over the child at issue is required. This legal principle, stare decisis, basically means that courts are usually hard-pressed to overturn prior cases. In other words, the Supreme Court is likely to agree with the Superior Court on this issue.

The second issue the court is considering: Was the evidence sufficient to convict Msgr. Lynn as an accomplice, i.e., as part of a general scheme, he placed a known sexual predator (priest Avery) under his control in a position that promoted the risk of further sexual assaults?

Probable Answer: Yes

If Lynn is not guilty because he did not directly supervise a child, he could be guilty under the principle of accomplice liability. An accomplice (Lynn) can be held guilty for the actions of a principal (Avery) where the accomplice agrees, aids or attempts to aid another person in the commission of a crime.

This issue boils down to intent and whether Lynn had to have actually intended sexual abuse to occur or whether he merely had to have intended to help someone commit the offense of endangering a child. The legal arguments are quite complex on this point. However, the DA’s argument and factual summary are quite strong.

In its Petition for Allowance of Appeal, the DA provided a copy of the 200+ page Philadelphia trial court opinion. That opinion summarizes the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s long-established practice of shielding sexually abusive priests and evading criminal investigations.

In light of this extensive history and Lynn’s knowledge of it, it is difficult to say that Lynn, as a supervising priest, could not have known (as the defense suggests) that placing a known sexually abusive priest where he had access to children posed a risk of future sexual assaults. The defense argument is that instead, Lynn hoped for the best and had no reason to believe that a priest who had a habit of sexual misconduct with children would pose any kind of risk for future assaults. Given the extensive history, it certainly seems that Lynn intended to continue the pattern of secrecy by relocating abusive priests to different parishes in the Philadelphia area.

How the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rules on these issues will set the tone for future criminal prosecutions of church leaders in clergy sex abuse cases.

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