NEW YORK — A decade after the clergy sex-abuse crisis erupted, the first Roman Catholic church official has been criminally convicted for failing to alert parishes or police about known predators.
Advocates for children said the verdict Friday against Monsignor William J. Lynn sends a critical message that diocesan officials who supervise priests must report offenders or face prosecution.
Lynn was secretary of the clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004. A jury in Philadelphia found him guilty of one count of child endangerment but acquitted him of conspiracy and a second child endangerment count.
Lynn is not the only diocesan official in the United States who kept accused priests in parish assignments. Thousands of case files made public through lawsuits and civil investigations revealed that consistent inaction by church officials in earlier years left a trail of victims in dioceses nationwide. .
So, why is Lynn the only American church official convicted so far? Here’s an explanation:
Q. Why is it so difficult to successfully prosecute church leaders who mishandled abuse claims?
A. Most of the abuse cases that have come to light in recent years involve allegations of wrongdoing from decades ago, far beyond the statutes of limitation for criminal charges and often for civil lawsuits. Since 2002, when the scandal broke wide open in the Archdiocese of Boston, a few prosecutors have struck deals with local dioceses to avoid indictment, and eight grand juries have investigated how local dioceses responded to abuse reports.
All the grand jury reports found evidence that church officials consistently protected accused clergy more than children. However, only one such report found enough evidence within time limits to prosecute a diocesan official: the Philadelphia grand jury investigation last year that led to Lynn’s conviction.
Q. Haven’t several states extended the statutes of limitation in response to the abuse scandal?
A. Some states have changed their laws to give victims several more years to file civil lawsuits. Three states — California, Delaware, and Hawaii — opened a one-time window of at least a year for accusers to sue the people who allegedly abused them as children.
However, criminal statutes of limitation are a different story. Even if lawmakers extend the time limits now for a criminal prosecution, it would not apply to old crimes. In California, legislators tried to retroactively waive the criminal statute of limitations for child molestation. The US Supreme Court later threw the law out.
Q. If government authorities can’t prosecute the diocesan officials, can’t the church at least do something?
A. The toughened child safety policy the bishops enacted in 2002 contains a discipline plan for abusive priests, but not for the bishops who failed to report them to police. Only the pope has authority over bishops, and none has been forced out for mishandling abuse cases from decades ago.
Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as archbishop of Boston in 2002 after court files revealed his role in sheltering accused priests. However, Law reportedly did so against the wishes of Vatican officials. Last year, Cardinal Justin Rigali stepped down as Philadelphia archbishop after the grand jury accused him of keeping credibly accused abusers on the job. He had already submitted his retirement request the year before, at age 75.