Priest's Role in Supervising Priest Who Assaulted Minors Too Indirect for Criminal Conviction

Vol 33 No 3

Commw. v. Lynn, 2013 WL 6834765 (Pa. Super. Ct.).

Where supervising priest had recommended a priest’s assignment to a role which did not involve direct contact with children, based on his knowledge that he had sexually offended some years before, he could not be convicted as an accomplice in endangering the welfare of a child. Though the assignment did allow the priest’s contact and abuse of children, supervisor’s actions were designed to stop, even if imperfectly, not aide or facilitate abuse.

Defendant Lynn was a secretary for the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, a management position where he resolved disputes among priests, ensured parishes had adequate priest coverage, and oversaw allegations of priest infractions. While he did not have direct authority to transfer, limit, or remove priests, he was the sole conduit for information regarding alleged sex abuse to the Archbishop. He was also one of only a few church officials with access to files related to allegations. He was criminally charged with endangering children in relation to actions he took and failed to take related to these duties.

Upon taking over the position of secretary, Lynn found a letter from a young man who claimed priest Avery had sexually abused him on several occasions when he was a minor. He met with the young man who told him of the abuse and the activities which led up to it, including trips, parties they attended together, and alcohol consumption. When Lynn confronted Avery, he did not deny the allegations outright, but rather claimed he could not remember those events as he had been drinking excessively. 

Lynn recommended Avery receive a mental health evaluation at a church facility. Lynn did not include any information about the sexual abuse 

allegation in his referral to the facility, only describing the drinking of alcohol with minors. Still, they found him in need of inpatient treatment and while in treatment he eventually admitted the abuse. The facility did not however diagnose him as having a sexual disorder, but recommended a placement where he would be separate from children. 

Upon release, Lynn’s first recommendation was to place Avery in a parish with a grade school. The Archbishop rejected the recommendation, and they found a placement at a hospital. He was allowed to live however at a nearby church. During his time as a hospital chaplain, fellow chaplains complained of his repeated missing shifts on the weekends. He remained in outpatient therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Another child came forward alleging priest Avery abused him at this new parish. The original victim’s brother also reported the abuse. After these revelations, the church removed Avery from the priesthood.

Lynn, Avery, and another priest were charged as co-defendants. Avery pled guilty and their trials were severed. Lynn was found guilty of endangering the welfare of a child related to Avery but not of the conspiracy to endanger children or of the endangerment charge related to his supervision of the other priest.

Lynn appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court. He first claimed the evidence was not sufficient and he should not have been charged as a principal with endangering a child when he had no direct involvement or supervision of children. Second, he argued he was not an accomplice.

The Pennsylvania Superior Court reversed the convictions. The court first noted that the statute read “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.” Further, a 2007 amendment added “or a person that employs or supervises such a person.”

Lynn argued that the 2007 amendment showed the legislature was adding a class of people, and his conviction was invalid as the events took place before the change. The state countered that the addition merely clarified the code, that supervising did not imply directly supervising.

Looking at the language of the pre-2007 statute, the court concluded the trial court erred in sustaining Lynn’s conviction as a principal because he did not directly supervise the child. 

Regarding convicting Lynn as an accomplice, the court noted that accomplice liability required showing the defendant intended to aid and did actively aid, solicit, or agree to aid the principal actor. 

While the state presented evidence suggesting Lynn’s priorities were preventing scandal over the welfare of children, this was not sufficient to show he intended to aid Avery in committing the offense. Lynn did not know Avery was still a threat almost 10 years after the abuse incidents, could have believed the abuse resulted from alcohol abuse for which Avery had been treated, and he did not actually approve of Avery’s activities outside the hospital. He had in fact instructed the local priest that Avery should not perform his duties around children. While these actions did not prevent the abuse, they did not aid or facilitate it.