MONSIGNOR William Lynn received a belated Christmas gift yesterday from the Superior Court of Pennsylvania: a get-out-of-jail-free card.
A three-judge appeals panel overturned Lynn's 2012 conviction of felony child endangerment for his questionable oversight of Edward Avery, a now-defrocked priest from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who pleaded guilty in 2012 of sexually assaulting an altar boy in 1998.
Lynn, 62, who served as the archdiocese's secretary for clergy, has spent the last 18 months behind bars as part of a three- to six-year sentence.
He was the first Roman Catholic Church official in the U.S. to be convicted of a crime connected to abuse allegations against the clergy.
In their 43-page ruling, the judges - John T. Bender, Christine L. Donahue and John L. Musmanno - sided with Lynn's attorneys, who argued that the child-endangerment law that was on the books in the state when Avery held his position only applied to people who had direct supervision of children, like parents and other caregivers.
The law was changed and broadened in 2007 to include employers whose employees end up harming children.
"I'm happy. This is very rewarding," Thomas Bergstrom, one of Lynn's attorneys, said yesterday.
"This was a labor of love. We fought long and hard, so it's nice to know that you were right."
Bergstrom said he hopes that Lynn will be released from a state prison in Wayne County in the next few days.
Prosecutors were not so pleased.
"I am disappointed and strongly disagree with the court's decision," District Attorney Seth Williams said in a statement distributed to the news media.
"While we are deciding what our next course of action will be, we most likely will be appealing this decision."
Bergstrom said an appeal would be a "fool's errand."
"What [the Superior Court] is saying is that he should have never been charged in the first place, period, never convicted and sent to prison," he said.
Williams wasn't the only one who objected to the court's ruling.
David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said he was "disheartened" by the news.
"No one is saying that Lynn didn't jeopardize the safety of children," he said. "They're saying that when he did so, this particular law didn't apply to him."
Lynn was in charge of fielding sexual-assault complaints - and reassigning priests, when necessary - from 1992 to 2004.
Prosecutors have alleged that Lynn learned in the mid-1990s that Avery had fondled a young boy, but later recommended that Avery be assigned to a parish with a school.
Avery ended up at St. Jerome in Northeast Philadelphia, where he sexually assaulted an altar boy who became known as "Billy Doe."
At his sentencing hearing last year, Lynn, who never met "Billy Doe," said he had tried to do his best in his role with the Archdiocese, but noted that it wasn't enough to protect the child.
At that time, Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, who presided over the sentencing, said that Lynn actually had protected "monsters in clerical garb."
In yesterday's decision, the Superior Court judges wrote that evidence showed that Lynn's "first priority in dealing with sexually abusive priests appeared to be the protection of the Archdiocese. His second priority appeared to be protection of the reputation of the offending priests."
But the judges noted that the same evidence wasn't sufficient to prove that Lynn had "intent to promote or facilitate an EWOC [endangering the welfare of a child] offense."
"What's upsetting about this is that kids were actually harmed because of Lynn's decisions," Clohessy said.
The Archdiocese yesterday released a statement that read in part: "The decision by the Superior Court to overturn this conviction does not and will not alter the church's commitment to assist and support the survivors of sexual abuse on their journey toward healing or our dedicated efforts to ensure that all young people in our care are safe."
Kenneth Gavin, the Archdiocese's director of communications, said church officials would have to decide whether Lynn will return to active ministry.
"I know the monsignor would like to be able to serve in some capacity," Bergstrom said.
Lynn most recently had served as pastor of St. Joseph Church in Downingtown, which opened a new $9 million facility earlier this year.
News of Lynn's overturned conviction was welcomed by several parishioners yesterday.
"I'm thrilled for him. I think justice was served," said Lisa Coyne, who has attended Mass at St. Joseph for 11 years.
"I think he was tainted by the media. I've known Monsignor Lynn and his family for a number of years, and he's a humble, wonderful man."
Another parishioner, Ann McCauley, said she supported Lynn during his trial, and stayed in touch with him after he was convicted.
He asked her for names of parishioners for whom he could pray while he was behind bars, she said.
"For all those involved, it's been a long and difficult journey," she said.
"I would still welcome him into my home. But at the same time, every single day, I pray for anyone who's been victimized in any way."
- Staff writer William Bender contributed to this report.