PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A Roman Catholic church official let children suffer at the hands of pedophile priests rather than stand up to his bishop, a judge said in handing down a stiff three- to six-year prison term that the archdiocese called unfair and excessive.
Monsignor William Lynn, 61, is the first U.S. church official convicted of covering up sex-abuse complaints against Roman Catholic priests. Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina gave him nearly the maximum term for child endangerment, noting that he made the choice to stay on the job, unlike the young victims who couldn't control their fate.
Lynn "enabled monsters in clerical garb ... to destroy the souls of children," Sarmina said Tuesday.
The former secretary for clergy at the Philadelphia archdiocese, he "helped many but also failed many" in his 36-year church career, Sarmina concluded.
Lynn, who handled priest assignments and child sexual assault complaints from 1992 to 2004, was convicted last month of felony endangerment for his oversight of now-defrocked priest Edward Avery. Avery is serving a 2½- to five-year sentence after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting an altar boy in church in 1999.
"I did not intend any harm to come to (the boy). The fact is, my best was not good enough to stop that harm," Lynn told the judge. "I am a parish priest. I should have stayed (one)."
Lynn's lawyers had sought probation, saying their client shouldn't serve more time than abusers. They plan to appeal the landmark conviction and seek bail next month while the lengthy appeals process unfolds.
Sarmina believes Lynn initially hoped to address the problem, and perhaps drafted a 1994 list of accused priests for that reason. But when Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua instead had the list destroyed, Lynn chose to stick around — and keep quiet, she said.
"Monsignor Lynn personally heard the suffering of children," she said. "Since he was going to obey his bishop, he had to build a wall to steel himself from hearing their pain."
Lynn was acquitted of conspiracy and a second endangerment count involving a co-defendant, the Rev. James Brennan. The jury deadlocked on a 1996 abuse charge against Brennan; prosecutors plan to retry him.
The archdiocese called the sentence severe and hoped it would be "adjusted."
"Fair-minded people will question the severity of the heavy, three- to six-year sentence," the statement said.
In 1992, a doctor told the archdiocese that Avery had abused him years earlier. Lynn met with the doctor and sent Avery for treatment — but the church-run facility diagnosed him with only an alcohol problem. Avery was later sent to live at the northeast Philadelphia parish where the altar boy was abused.
"A young boy was raped and those who could have prevented it had other priorities," the doctor wrote in a recent victim-impact letter.
Others believe Lynn is being judged through an unfair prism. Jurors heard about priest-abuse cases in Philadelphia that dated back to 1948.
"He did not have the benefit of our current hindsight," wrote former priest Dexter Lanctot, a seminary classmate of Lynn's. "As a society, we are all awakening to a very broken system. ... The evil we are speaking of in this case is embedded in systems that are deeply flawed and not in an individual."
Philadelphia prosecutors spent a decade investigating sex abuse complaints and issued two damning grand jury reports. They say Lynn and unindicted co-conspirators in the church hierarchy kept children in danger and the public in the dark.
"He locked away in a vault the names of pedophile priests. ... He now will be locked away for a fraction of the time he kept that secret vault," District Attorney Seth Williams said of Lynn.
Defense lawyers will argue on appeal that the state's child endangerment statute, revised in 2007 to include those who supervise abusers, should not apply to Lynn since he left office in 2004. They also insist he did more than anyone at the archdiocese to meet with victims, get pedophile priests into treatment and send recommendations to the cardinal.
"He did the best he could under absolutely awful circumstances," said lawyer Thomas Bergstrom.
The sex-abuse scandal has rocked the U.S. Catholic church for more than a decade, and may claim other higher-ups.
Bishop Robert Finn and the Kansas City diocese face a misdemeanor charge of failing to report suspected child sexual abuse. Both Finn and the diocese have pleaded not guilty and are set for trial in September.
"The Lynn sentence ... will embolden other prosecutors and deter other enablers," said Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks priest-abuse cases and believes more than 500 Catholic priests in the U.S. have been convicted of abuse.
"Until now, the enablers — bishops, vicars general, vicars for clergy, and other chancery officials — have shielded themselves from scrutiny and justice," McKiernan said. "Now that prison is a real possibility, church officials will feel much greater pressure to do the right thing."
Associated Press writer JoAnn Loviglio in Philadelphia contributed to this report.