On Thursday, December 26, a Pennsylvania Appellate Court overturned the conviction and ordered the release of a Roman Catholic priest, Monsignor William J, Lynn. In 2012, Msgr. Lynn was the first cleric in the United States to be convicted for covering up the abuse of children by priests under his supervision and authority.
Msgr. Lynn has spent 18 months in prison.
The Philadelphia District Attorney issued a statement evincing his strong disagreement with the appellate court’s decision and stated that in all probability the State would appeal the ruling.
The facts underlying the 2012 conviction of the 62 year old Monsignor are all too familiar: A parish priest sexually abuses an altar boy. The altar boy complains, and the priest admits to the crime. The Catholic Church then covers up the incident.
Typically such cover-ups begin with hefty offers of money to the family of the abused child to purchase their silence and their promise not to sue or to press charges. In this particular instance Msgr. Lynn then sent the priest, Edward Avery, to a retreat-rehabilitation center for treatment.
Had the story ended there, it would have been bad enough, but these stories rarely end there. The second act of these tragedies takes place when the-powers-that-be in the home diocese reassign the known offender to another parish where he commits the same crime again. In this instance, Msgr. Lynn, with full knowledge that Fr. Avery had abused at least one boy, re-assigned Avery to another parish where Avery abused another boy.
In light of the serial abuse and Msgr. Lynn’s wilfully obtuse management of Avery and the situation, Philadelphia’s District Attorney argued that Lynn was guilty of a felony under Pennsylvania’s child endangerment law. In 2012 a jury agreed. The trial judge sentenced Lynn to a three-to-six year sentence. The appellate court overturned this conviction stating that its review of the record did not support the conclusion that Lynn had intentionally promoted or facilitated acts endangering a child.
The legal issue is finely drawn with specific reference to the issue of intent and the statutory language “promote or facilitate.” Any decision at the appellate level can go either way. Reasonable arguments can and do support opposing views. Unfortunately for the people of Pennsylvania who’d convicted Msgr. Lynn for having promoted or facilitated the abuse of children by a priest under his authority and control, the court’s decision, if upheld by Pennsylvania’s highest court, will make it very difficult for prosecutors to pull back again the next layer of culpability in the outrageous scandal of child abuse in the Catholic Church.
Even as Catholics, practicing or lapsed, acknowledge the dawning of something new in the person and spirit of Pope Francis, memory paints again the tawdry picture of priests abusing children and of a Church that would protect its own at all costs.
As news cycles turn and new concerns fill the media’s screens, people forget that the abuse complained of began long before many care to admit, and, despite claims of reform and a purge of offending clerics, such abuse is ongoing.
The difficulties in prosecuting a Catholic priest, a man of the cloth, are especially pronounced because priests are set apart by image, clothing, occupation, tradition, and status. The priestly caste has always been set apart and has always been prone to corruption. From the Egypt of the Pharaohs to the present day Vatican, the corruption is general, not unlike the multi-form discrepancies that occur in any bureaucracy or corporate setting. What lends priestly corruption its more venal character is the distance between earthly corruption and a believer’s expectations of clerics ostensibly devoted to higher things.
Nonetheless, for almost 200 years Catholics in America looked the other way whenever problems arose like incense over the altar. They ignored wrongdoings and easily forgave their priests, acknowledging their need for the identity and “life of the parish,” as well as the ministrations of those intermediaries who propose to act as an earthly bridge (“pontiff” in Latin) between the “here and now” and the “there and then.”
Members of the priestly caste, no matter what culture or religion, tend to be political in-fighters of the first order. Since they derive their power from the faith of the congregants and the favor of the hierarchy, priests always stand at a politically vulnerable half-way mark where they must obey the hierarchy while impressing the people in the pews. The tasks aren’t always compatible.
Until the recent scandal and tone-deaf response of two popes, parishioners generally believed that priests stand in the shoes of Jesus. For any young man’s first experience of real power to be that derived from standing in the shoes of the Christ can be a heady experience. After all, people stand when the priest says stand, they sit when he says sit, and they kneel when he says kneel. Nuns fawn over him. The women of the parish look on him and say the Lord keeps the best for himself. The middle class guys, conscious of status, pal around with him, give him bottles of scotch and take him to their country club for a round on Saturdays. In return the priest say the masses, do the baptisms, perform the marriages and the funerals. He forgives sins and saves souls and continues to convince himself that his life, with the obedience and the celibacy and the promise of poverty, is a meaningful service to the Church and the people of God.
It was heady stuff for years. Hollywood loved it and made movies about it. And it all worked pretty well in America’s cities among first generation immigrants up through the post-War flight of second and third generation Europeans to the suburbs.
It worked well because in the same way the press wouldn’t report on Kennedy’s over-active sexual escapades, absolutely nobody dared breathe a word about anything as untoward as the priestly abuse of children. The idea, the notion, the grotesque rumors just didn’t exist in the minds of the faithful. It wasn’t a possibility in the library of the most unthinkable possibilities. It just didn’t happen, because it couldn’t happen, and the trouble-maker who could imagine such things, let alone say such things, must be a twisted, perverted, sick and evil soul.
Talk about a culture of denial.
The truth is that priests have been abusing children since before Victor Hugo wrote the Hunchback of Notre Dame. However, in America in the early years of the twentieth century when Bing Crosby was the generally accepted model for a healthy, talented, well-balanced man who also happened to be a celibate priest, child abuse was like the proverbial tree in the proverbial forest – if nobody heard it fall, nobody could prove that it had caused a sound. True or not, denial was enough to allow the rank and file and the hierarchy to sleep at night. It was generational denial consequent to demographics and the attenuated hold immigrants had on the brass ring of the American dream. It was corporate denial in that priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals knew that priests were abusing children, but played upon the impossibility of it all to manipulate the victims into obedient silence.
The whole edifice of silence began to unravel post-Vatican II. In the mid to late 70’s word started to leak among the lawyers representing the Boston Archdiocese and Cardinal Medeiros. The Catholic Church was paying out a lot of money to maintain a conspiracy of silence. Kids were being abused, and some families were getting rich. Medeiros retired and Bernard Cardinal Law took over while John Paul II sat on the papal throne and Cardinal Ratzinger was elevated to the role of cover-up czar for the entire Church. Nothing changed. Cover-ups continued in Boston and all over the country, including Philadelphia.
Msgr. Lynn is a chubby guy with the soft features of what he probably thinks a kindly man is supposed to look like. The fact that he was elevated to the largely ceremonial position of Monsignor implies that he’s a tried-and-true company man, a loyal soldier, an obedient son to Holy Mother Church.
Lynn was not the kind of guy who’d cause the hierarchy any trouble whatsoever. In all likelihood his personal conscience was sublimated to the minds and intentions of his superiors, and his moral compass is a removable disk, interchangeable with Church produced software that compels perfect, absolute, total, and immediate obedience.
The obedient priest wastes no time considering the whys and wherefore of any directive. His only job is to identify the order as an order and then to carry it out. Even after the recent lessons learned from the horrors visited on innocents by the unthinking minds of absolutely loyal soldiers, men like Lynn prefer to relinquish personal responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
The Catholic Church’s policy was to cover-up, so Lynn covered it up. The policy was to reassign the offending priest, so Lynn reassigned the offending priest. The policy was to protect the Church at all costs and screw the victim in the process, so Lynn protected the church at all costs and screwed the victims in the process.
As a general consideration since the 19th Century, absolute obedience to higher authority didn’t come under any real scrutiny until the 60’s and 70’s when draft age men had some skin in the game and neither Johnson nor Nixon could convince a majority of draft-age youth that getting blown away in southeastern Asia was an honorable act of patriotism.
The upheavals of the 60’s were a dangerous and uncertain interlude for the corporate inspired group-think that had served America well during the Depression and World War II. Nonetheless and in spite of the spirit of hyper-individualism of the Boomers in their youth, recruiters for Fortune 500 companies, the FBI and the military were always able to find those persons who prefer to obey rather than to think and act on their own.
Unthinking obedience isn’t always a bad thing, especially if those in authority, the ones issuing the orders, are brilliant, fair, just, wise, true, collegial, supportive and willing to admit and correct their own mistakes. Unfortunately the inverse is also true, and since the tendency of power is to corrupt, it’s only a matter of time when even the best in authority lose their way. Corrupt authority can issue some pretty ugly orders, and it takes a person with the benign, robotic, plastic reactions of someone like Msgr. Bill Lynn to follow through without any questions, without looking left or right for counsel or relief.
The fact that Lynn could do all of this from the safety of an office far from the scene of the crime and its consequences, in the same way the military can press a button in Colorado and blow up cities half a world away, affirms the proposition that distance, be it physical, psychological or emotional, assists and frees a person to commit a crime with diminished appreciation for the consequences of the act.
The prosecution of Lynn and the jury’s verdict acknowledged a fact that won’t go away, whether or not the statutes in Pennsylvania are drawn to effect a reviewable conviction. The fact is this: the liability for the crimes of the priest, Edward Avery, extend all the way up and through an organization made corrupt over centuries by exercising unwarranted power over those least likely to protest or raise objection.
For years the Catholic Church has acquired wealth and power and influence by turning good news into bad news, love into fear, blaming victims, hiding away from civil authorities and shirking responsibility for its acts, individual and corporate.
Perhaps the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania will see through the failure of the appellate court to promote and facilitate justice. If not there’s a monsignor in Philly who could use a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black and a round of 18 when the club opens.
By Michael Hogan