Msgr. Lynn is Sentenced, But Was Justice Satisfied? UPDATED

The first official of the Church to be found guilty of failing to protect children from sexual abuse has been sentenced to 3 to 6 years in prison. Monsignor William Lynn of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia oversaw the assignment of priests and addressed (or, more accurately, failed to address) accusations of abuse from from 1992 to 2004.

From Reuters:

Judge M. Teresa Sarmina said Lynn enabled “monsters in clerical garb … to destroy the souls of children, to whom you turned a hard heart.”

She added: “You knew full well what was right, Monsignor Lynn, but you chose wrong.”

A jury convicted him last month of felony child endangerment for his oversight of now-defrocked priest Edward Avery, who is serving a 2 1/2 to five-year sentence after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting an altar boy in church.

Lynn’s lawyers sought probation, arguing that few Pennsylvanians serve long prison terms for child endangerment and their client shouldn’t serve more time than abusers. Defense attorneys, who have vowed an appeal of the landmark conviction, said the seven-year maximum term advocated by the commonwealth “would merely be cruel and unusual.”

The problem with the verdict and the sentence is that it was the result of a show trial initiated by a grandstanding prosecutor and presided over by a biased judge. Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina simply lied in court when she said: “Anybody that doesn’t think there is widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet.” She made it a trial about the Church, and not about Lynn and the actual abusers.

Catholic clergy abused at or below the levels of the general male population, and very few cases have arisen in the past decade, so for a judge to characterize the Church as somehow uniquely prone to abuse, and to imply in the face of all evidence that the problem persists at the same level to the present day, is wildly inappropriate. It also ignores that this primarily a gay male issue, with the vast majority of victims being post-pubescent males (ephebophilia, not pedophilia).

Our eagerness to see people punished for the disgusting sexual abuse scandal doesn’t mean we get to short-circuit the judicial process, and it doesn’t mean a judge gets to keep her thumb on one side of the scales of justice. The abuse crisis has struck at the very heart of our church not because there is “widespread sexual abuse in Catholic Church,” but because our leaders failed to address the issue.

Many Catholics may well choose to remain silent on the Lynn verdict because we want to see the end of this story, and jail time for a Church leader–any Church leader–when so many have gone unpunished seems to satisfy the demands of justice. To this extent, Msgr. Lynn was always going to be a kind of scapegoat, standing as proxy for the sins of many. But the sexual abuse story is far more complex than that, and one man’s crimes must always remain his crimes alone: not those of all the Catholic leadership (clergy and lay) who failed. Lynn’s prison term is close to the maximum allowed, which is unusual in child endangerment cases, particularly given the charges against him.

The nature of the trial, the public nature of the subject of clergy sexual abuse, the charges, the venue, and the judge made one thing certain: William Lynn was not merely on trial for things he failed to do. He was on trial for the entire leadership of the Church. For that reason alone, true justice–which must, above all, be fair, equal, and blind–was always going to be elusive.

UPDATE: As always, Rocco Palmo is essential reading for this story.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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