Last updated: August 4, 2016
August 2016 Update: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the Philadelphia District Attorney’s appeal on July 26, 2016. The District Attorney appealed the lower court’s order for a new trial. The case is likely to be retried. Stay tuned.
In December 2015, a 3-member panel of the Pennsylvania Superior Court ordered a new trial for former Philadelphia Archdiocese Monsignor William J. Lynn. Click here for a copy of the December 22, 2015 court opinion. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office for the Commonwealth filed a motion to reargue the case in front of the full panel of judges. On February 10, 2016, the court denied that motion. The Commonwealth can file an appeal with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. However, based on the issues, it’s likely that this historic priest abuse criminal case will be retried. This case is far from over, and it’s likely to continue for at least another 2-3 years.
Summary of Lynn’s Conviction & Appeal
In 2012, Lynn was sentenced to 3-6 years on a conviction for 1 count of Endangering the Welfare of a Child (EWOC), a third degree felony. His trial was the first of its kind—the first time a priest in a supervisory role was tried and convicted of failing to properly supervise pedophile priests and instead moving them from parish to parish where the priests claimed more victims. This case has been closely watched around the country because of its implications.
Lynn appealed his conviction with the Pennsylvania Superior Court, raising 10 legal errors. The Superior Court decided the appeal in Lynn’s favor based on just one of those ten issues. The critical issue was whether Lynn was a “supervisor” within the meaning of the EWOC statute in effect at the time.
The Superior Court held that Lynn could not have been a “supervisor” because he did not directly supervise any children. The Commonwealth appealed that ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which reversed the Superior Court’s decision.
The PA Supreme Court held that there was no direct supervision requirement under the law at that time; it was enough that Lynn generally or indirectly supervised the welfare of children. The case was then remanded to the Superior Court to decide the remaining appellate issues.
The PA Superior Court’s Ruling – A New Trial for Lynn
The Superior Court declined to decide all of the remaining issues raised in Lynn’s appeal. Rather, the court zeroed in on one issue, found in Lynn’s favor and ordered a new trial. That issue was whether the original trial court made a mistake in allowing the prosecution to introduce evidence of how the Archdiocese previously dealt with 21 other pedophile priests. Lynn argued that over the course of the original 32 day trial, the Commonwealth spent 25 days introducing evidence of other pedophile priests. He also argued that this evidence prejudiced the jury against him.
The Commonwealth argued that the 21 prior cases showed a pervasive pattern of knowledge and concealment of a critical fact—the tendency for priests to continue abusing children even after getting caught. It also argued that this evidence was necessary to rebut Lynn’s argument that he had no control over priests or any reason to believe they were dangerous.
The Superior Court ultimately agreed with Lynn, finding that much of the prior evidence and history was overly prejudicial. The court held that any relevance was far removed, since much of the evidence preceded Lynn’s tenure as Secretary of Clergy.
Is a New Trial Next for Lynn?
In all likelihood, the Commonwealth won’t win an appeal of the most recent Pennsylvania Superior Court ruling which ordered another trial.
Here’s a bit of background on the legal issue. Under Pennsylvania Rules of Evidence which apply in criminal cases, a defendant’s prior bad acts may be introduced into evidence in very limited cases. The law was designed to prevent the prosecution from being able to get a conviction by showing or arguing that the defendant is a bad person or has previously committed bad acts. The idea is that defendants should be judged on the alleged criminal conduct itself, not a proclivity to commit crime.
However, in some cases, prior bad acts evidence may be introduced to show the defendant’s motive, knowledge, intent, lack of mistake, etc. Generally, the prior bad acts evidence must be sufficiently similar to the conduct alleged in the case.
At Lynn’s trial, the Commonwealth argued that as the Secretary for Clergy, Lynn knew the history and culture, i.e., over the course of decades, the Archdiocese continually protected priests who were accused of sex abuse. However, the Superior Court basically found that the prior bad acts evidence was not sufficiently similar to the conduct at issue in the case.
At a retrial, the trial court will have to parse through each of the 21 prior acts involving other priests and determine which, if any, can be admitted against Lynn. Applying the Superior Court’s reasoning, only the cases which occurred during Lynn’s tenure as a priest would be admissible. Given the Superior Court’s discussion of the issue, the trial court judge is likely to allow into evidence only those cases which Lynn actually knew about or those which occurred during his tenure.
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