HARRISBURG - A Philadelphia prosecutor asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Tuesday to reinstate the historic child-endangerment conviction against Msgr. William J. Lynn, former secretary for clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
"He had a duty to protect children from priests, and he protected priests," said Hugh Burns, chief of the District Attorney's Office appellate unit.
But Lynn's attorney, Thomas Bergstrom, said the monsignor could not be held responsible for a priest's sexual abuse of a child because the law at the time did not recognize him as a supervisor.
Before a packed Capitol courtroom, the justices became the latest - and likely last - judicial authority to tackle an issue that rippled beyond the region and could affect other cases, including the pending trial of former Pennsylvania State University administrators accused of covering up child sex abuse by onetime coach Jerry Sandusky.
Lynn, 63, was convicted and sentenced in 2012 to three to six years in prison for child endangerment by failing to act against a priest he suspected of child sex abuse in the 1990s. The priest, Edward Avery, later sexually assaulted a 10-year-old altar boy.
At the time of his arrest in 2011, Lynn was the first senior church official in the United States charged with covering up or ignoring clergy sex abuse.
But a Superior Court panel last year overturned his conviction, saying prosecutors had misapplied the state's child-endangerment law. Prosecutors asked the high court to settle the issue.
Since January, Lynn has been free on bail and living under house arrest at a Philadelphia rectory. He did not attend the hearing.
His lawyers won his release with the same argument that had failed with his trial judge in Philadelphia. They argued that the criminal statute before 2007 could be enforced only against individuals with direct contact or supervision of children and that Lynn had none. The District Attorney's Office countered that the law could and should be more broadly interpreted.
The six-member Supreme Court spent much of the 30-minute hearing focused on that issue and probing Bergstrom's contention that Lynn - whose job until 2004 included overseeing clergy-misconduct investigations and recommending clergy treatment and assignments - did not "supervise" Avery and other priests.
"What authority did he have if he was not a supervisor, had no authority to transfer him or remove him or suspend his duties?" Justice Debra Todd asked Bergstrom.
"He had the authority to report abuse to the cardinal," the attorney replied.
After the hearing, Burns said that "a knowing breach of duty of a caretaker" results in endangerment: "It's not necessary to specifically know the child."
It was not clear when the Supreme Court would rule. If Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille were to write the opinion, it would have to come before January, when Castille must retire upon turning 70.
If the court were to split its vote 3-3, the lower-court ruling would stand and Lynn would be free.