Philadelphia, For Immediate Release (1/1/14)
Philadelphia Monsignor Lynn’s conviction was overturned last month by the Pennsylvania Superior Court. The legal issue in the case revolved around two versions of the child endangerment statute. Lynn was convicted under a prior version (pre-2007) of the statute. Click here to read more about the legal issues in Lynn’s appeal.
Why the Pennsylvania Superior Court is Wrong in Lynn’s Case
The Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that Lynn did not directly supervise the welfare of the child at issue (i.e., the child who was sexually abused). There are two issues with the Court’s reasoning:
1. The 2007 version of the child endangerment statute does not require direct supervision. Clearly, the statute does not, on its face, require direct supervision. In its reading of the statute, the Court essentially added a direct supervision requirement.
2. With respect to the statute’s application to certain classes of persons, i.e., parents, guardians, and other persons “supervising the welfare of a child,” the Court held that a non-parent or non-guardian must actually supervise the abused child involved in the case.
The PA Superior Court’s decision is wrong because it ignores the entire language of the older version of the statute, which reads:
A parent, guardian or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age commits an offense if he knowingly endangers the welfare of the child by violating a duty of care, protection or support. (emphasis added)
The first part of the statute, the one at issue, “supervising the welfare of a child,” does not refer to the specific child at issue, whereas the second part of the statute does. If the legislature intended for the statute only to apply to supervisors of THE child, the first part of the statute would have read: “supervising the welfare of the child.”
This sounds like an incredibly trivial distinction, but it is actually quite important when applying principles of statutory construction. When reading statutes, courts are supposed to look to the language of the statute or law. If there is confusion, then courts will look to legislative intent.
The first principle of statutory construction is to read the statute, as it actually reads. By using the word “a” in the first part of the statute, the child endangerment statute applies to someone who supervises the welfare of children, not supervises the welfare of a specific child.
Teachers, educators, and religious leaders like priests absolutely have a duty to supervise the welfare of children. This coincides with the mandatory child abuse reporting law in Pennsylvania which requires certain classes of professions (educators, priests, etc.) to report reasonably suspected cases of child abuse including child sex abuse.
Priests, whether they are delivering sermons to parishioners, supervising other priests as a Monsignor or even the pope himself, have an overarching duty of care to all those within the parish or diocese, and that includes children. It makes no sense to say that a supervising Monsignor had no duty to supervise the welfare of a child; that is exactly what all priests do.
At this point, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office has indicated it will appeal the decision. Hopefully, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will cease the controversy, apply the correct rules of statutory construction and reinstate Lynn’s conviction.
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