A Pennsylvania appellate court on Tuesday ordered a new trial for Msgr. William J. Lynn, overturning for a second time a landmark verdict that was the first conviction nationwide of a Catholic Church official for covering up child sex abuse by priests.
A three-judge Superior Court panel found that Lynn's 2012 conviction had been tainted by prosecutors' presentation of nearly two dozen examples of the Philadelphia Archdiocese's failure to handle pedophilia within its ranks. Lynn, however, was only charged in connection with his supervision of two priests.
Such evidence, said Judge Emeritus John T. Bender, writing for the majority, was "unfairly prejudicial" and effectively turned Lynn into a scapegoat for the wider sins of the church. Some of those crimes predated by decades Lynn's tenure as the archdiocesan official in charge of handling sex-abuse complaints.
The court's decision again threw into doubt what District Attorney Seth Williams has touted as a historic prosecution, and raised questions about the 64-year-old cleric's future, two years into his three- to six-year sentence on child endangerment charges.
His lawyer, Thomas A. Bergstrom, said he intends once again to seek Lynn's release from prison.
"In our view, the evidence about other priests had nothing whatsoever to do with Msgr. Lynn and the allegations against him," Bergstrom said. "I'm pleased with the court's recognition of that."
Philadelphia prosecutors, who have 14 days to decide whether to appeal the ruling, said they were reviewing the decision.
Williams "is committed to protecting all the citizens of Philadelphia against crimes of violence such as those committed by Msgr. Lynn," his spokesman said in a statement.
The ruling was met with silence from the archdiocese, which has paid for Lynn's legal defense because the charges stemmed from his job. But advocates for child sex-abuse victims bemoaned the back-and-forth appellate rulings that have marked the years since the trial.
Superior Court previously tossed Lynn's conviction in 2013, finding that he had been improperly charged under a law that did not apply at the time of his alleged crimes. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated the guilty verdict this year.
Tuesday's ruling again "rubs salt into already deep and still fresh wounds of Philadelphia Catholics and victims," said David Clohessy, director of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP).
"We hope he's found guilty again," he said. "We hope he serves every day of his sentence."
Marci A. Hamilton, a Philadelphia-area lawyer who has sued the Catholic Church on behalf of clergy sex-abuse victims, agreed.
"I honestly do not know how much less could be done for the victims in Pennsylvania," she said. "I hope the district attorney will appeal."
In his opinion Tuesday, Bender affirmed an argument Lynn's lawyers have been making for four years - that Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina allowed the jury to be unfairly prejudiced by admitting into court decades worth of child-abuse complaints involving Philadelphia-area priests.
Many of those documents, some dating back to the 1940s, had been locked away in a safe in church offices known as the "secret archive."
As the secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, Lynn was responsible for investigating sex-abuse complaints made against priests and recommending punishment to the archbishop. But several of the priests whose fates were outlined at his trial had left active ministry before Lynn took on that role.
"It is clear from the record that the commonwealth introduced these files to put on trial the entire Archdiocese of Philadelphia, hoping to convict [Lynn] by proxy for the sins of the entire church," the lawyers wrote in a brief.
Prosecutors said such evidence was necessary to establish that Lynn's decisions followed a practice or pattern among church leaders to put the archdiocese's interests above those of victims.
Superior Court Judge Christine L. Donohue agreed.
"The record supports a finding that both Lynn and his predecessors handled prior allegations of sexual abuse against other priests with the motive and intent of shielding the church from scandal," she wrote in a dissenting opinion.
Lynn was convicted after a 13-week trial and 12 days of deliberations of allowing the Rev. Edward V. Avery, who had a history of sexually abusing children, to live in a rectory of St. Jerome Catholic Church in Northeast Philadelphia, where he later assaulted a 10-year-old altar boy. Avery pleaded guilty in the 1999 attack and was sentenced to five years in prison. He is currently at the state prison in Laurel Highlands, Somerset County.
It was not clear late Tuesday whether Lynn, who has been held since July in a state prison in Waymart, northeast of Scranton, was aware of his latest court victory. Bergstrom said he had not yet had a chance to speak to his client.
"The state correctional people are not going to want to keep him," Bergstrom said. "We have to do something about that very quickly."