“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Martin Luther King, Jr.
All too often our legal system functions in a way that favors abusers over the abused. The injustices suffered by survivors of childhood sexual abuse are legion and well-documented. But on April 27, 2015, justice was done for the protection of children from sexual abuse. The landmark decision of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reinstating the child endangerment conviction of Monsignor William Lynn reverses a grave injustice and lights the path for other courts to enforce laws mandating the protection of children’s physical, psychological, and moral welfare.
From 1992-2005, Lynn was a high-ranking official in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Among his other duties, he handled clergy sex abuse issues and became the “point man” in investigations into allegations of clergy sexual abuse of children within the Archdiocese. In that capacity, he collected information about such allegations, discussed the complaints with the accused priests, participated in deciding how to handle the complaints, and made recommendations to the Cardinal about the abusive priests. In his own trial testimony, he characterized protecting children as the most significant part of his work.
Unfortunately for the abused children, Lynn performed his job in such a way as to protect the abusive priests, not the endangered children. Despite having specific knowledge of the priests’ histories of abuse, Lynn violated his duty to prevent priests from sexually assaulting children by concealing the priests’ criminal acts in order to protect the reputation of the Archdiocese, rather than the welfare of the children. As a result, a jury convicted Lynn of violating a Pennsylvania law that made it a crime for “[a] parent, guardian,” or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age . . . [to] knowingly endanger the welfare of the child by violating a duty of care, protection, or support.” As such, Lynn was the first Catholic Church official found guilty for his supervisory role in the clergy child sex-abuse scandal. The trial judge sentenced Lynn to serve 3-6 years in prison.
But the conviction was short-lived. An intermediate appellate court reversed Lynn’s conviction on the grounds that the endangering statute did not apply to him because he had not been directly responsible for “supervising the welfare of a child.” Instead, that court reasoned, Lynn had been responsible for supervising priests, not children. So Lynn was released from prison, no longer a felon. That is, until April 27, when the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed the lower court’s decision and reinstated Lynn’s conviction.
The Court rejected the false reasoning of the lower court, concluding that the law did not require direct supervision of children. Instead, the Court held, “that which is supervised is the child’s welfare” and Lynn violated his specific duty to protect children from sexually abusive priests. In interpreting the child endangerment statute, the Court noted that it was “cognizant of [its] obligation to construe such protective juvenile statutes broadly to safeguard the welfare and security of children.” In addition, “the common sense of the community and the sense of decency, propriety, and morality” guided the Court’s finding that Lynn’s conduct was criminal. The Court recognized that the law was intended “to safeguard the emotional, psychological, and physical well-being of children,” and extended to all forms of supervising a child’s welfare.
Under the Court’s ruling, all those who are responsible for the management of others who directly supervise the welfare of children have a legal duty to protect the children from harm. This applies to school principals, day care center managers, head coaches of athletic teams, and a myriad of other managers or administrators in positions involving the supervision of those who supervise children. In reaching this decision, the Court set a powerful legal precedent that should be adopted and applied by other courts in cases involving child endangerment laws.
At the end of the day, it is our responsibility to assert our own sense of “decency, propriety, and morality” in making certain that our children – all children – are protected from sexual predators. We must be vigilant in requiring those who are in positions of authority over children fulfill their duty to protect the safety and well-being of those children. The survivors who were sexually abused by priests under Lynn’s watch received some measure of justice by the Court’s decision. We fervently hope that these survivors find some peace in the Court’s ruling. It now falls on all of us to empower survivors who are still in search of justice against their abusers. Let the Lynn decision give us new strength and perseverance in this endeavor.
Submitted by Neil Jaffee, Legal Counsel Pursuit of Truth film