Msgr William Lynn is Free and a Prosecutor is “Disgusted”

Msgr Wm. Lynn is Free and Prosecutor is 'disgusted' s

When the show trial of Msgr William Lynn was overturned, Philadelphia D.A. Seth Williams showed his contempt for the defendant, for the Church, and for the law.

Why Are So Many Catholics So Angry with So Many Priests?” That question was the title of a July 2012 post on These Stone Walls. If you missed it while on summer vacation, I’m still looking for answers. In comments, many readers agreed that the premise was, and is, true – that clearly many Catholics are indeed angry with many Catholic priests, but the precise reasons are less clear. Many readers agreed with me that the anger precedes the sexual abuse scandal by decades, but beyond that, there was no consensus on why such anger exists.

A lot of TSW readers did not want to go on record on that post, so we received many more e-mails than comments. Some suggested that priests should be living a sort of counter-cultural life, but those who do can be vaguely resented as living reminders of our culture’s downward spiral. Others thought that too many priests are not nearly counter-cultural enough, and instead have capitulated far too much to the tides and trends of Western Culture. Some readers thought that the old adage of priesthood – “In the world, but not of it” – has sadly gone the way of Bing Crosby’s Father O’Malley in “Going My Way,” the title of both a great film and a far less great TSW post about priesthood.

The most anger from readers was directed at priests who openly dissent from Church teaching, who experiment with liturgical norms, or who appear to be too inclined toward entitlement and “careerism.” The latter trait is something Pope Francis recently addressed when he abolished the honorary title of “monsignor” for priests under the age of 65 as a step toward eliminating any notion of upward mobility in the priesthood in the service of self.

In the brief three-and-a-half years of TSW’s existence, I have written about priestly targets of ill-defined anger on both sides of this story. When I wrote, “The Catholic Press needs to Get Over Its Father Maciel Syndrome,” I made no excuses for the late Father Marcial Maciel’s profession of living a counter-cultural life while actually living its polar opposite.

On the other hand, in “Father Benedict Groeschel at EWTN: Time for a Moment of Truth” I suggested that our news media has descended to the level of a lynch mob in regard to priests. The media attack on Father Groeschel was entirely undeserved and should have been a line drawn in the sand for Catholics. “Not this time; not this priest!” I wrote. Many readers agreed that the shabby treatment of the venerable Father Groeschel was another black eye on the American church.

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY

I mentioned Monsignor William Lynn for the first time in “Why Are So Many Catholics So Angry with So Many Priests?” It was followed three months later with an examination of what has been described as his “show trial” in “Trophy Justice: The Philadelphia Msgr William Lynn Case.” Those posts addressed the dynamics of the “trophy justice” meted out to Msgr. Lynn, and it was a face of justice all too familiar to me.

The problem was – and a Philadelphia appeals court finally agreed – that the trial and conviction of Monsignor Lynn was not justice at all. A three-judge appellate panel unanimously ruled that Lynn should not have been convicted because the law in place at the time of his supposed “crime” applied only to direct supervisors of minors, and not to someone indirectly supervising the supervisors. Lynn should not have been convicted. He should not even have been tried.

The rule of law with which the Superior Court overturned the verdict should have been apparent to Judge Teresa Sarinina who presided over Lynn’s trial and sentenced him, and it should have been apparent to Philadelphia prosecutor Seth Williams who propelled the case forward. Both were perfectly capable of interpreting the law correctly – as the appellate judges finally did – but they failed in that public duty for the very reason I described in “Trophy Justice.” The ultimate prize – the jailing of a diocesan supervisor of priests – was just too enticing for law, evidence, and reason to prevail over emotion, vengeance, and media hype. I’ve seen such trophy justice before. I had a front row seat.

After the reversal of Monsignor Lynn’s conviction, and his release from prison, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams publicly attacked Lynn and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and claimed he was “disgusted” over the appellate court’s reversal of this conviction. According to a January 8 summary in The Media Report, the prosecutor declared the appellate court to be unjust for applying the law correctly. The Superior Court ruled that Judge Teresa Sarmina’s decision to convict was “fundamentally flawed.”

Seth WilliamsAmong the best commentaries in the wake of this appellate review was one by Philadelphia Daily News columnist, Christine Flowers entitled, “Disgusted Over D.A.’s Lynn Verdict Disgust.” I had to read the article to wrap my mind around the meaning of her title. Ms. Flowers is an attorney who understands the rule of law, and also understands that law itself was sacrificed for what she aptly termed “the continuation of a show trial that was flawed from the outset.”

Christine Flowers is a voice of sanity and legal reasoning in a case that was built entirely on media hype and should never have gone to trial. The law under which Lynn was tried, convicted and sentenced was amended in 2007 to include supervisors like Lynn, “but you can’t be convicted of a crime retroactively.” As she pointed out in her article, prosecutor Seth Williams,

“…is a very smart man, and he knows that. The fact that he was ‘disgusted’ with the Superior Court ruling indicates that he…felt that public outrage and a communal sense of misdirected vengeance overrode the legal technicality known as due process.”

TRIAL BY MEDIA INSTEAD OF BY LAW

On November 20, 2013, President Barack Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to several recipients including former President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, and Daniel Kahneman. A few TSW readers recalled that I once wrote of that last recipient in a 2 009 article for Catalyst, the Journal of the Catholic League for Religious & Civil Rights. The article was entitled, “Due Process for Accused Priests.”

Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the Nobel prize in Economics in 2 002 – the same year the Catholic sex abuse story swept the nation – for his work on a phenomenon in psychology and marketing known as “availability bias.” In its simplest terms, it is the human propensity to judge a proposition as valid just because the media has repeated it, and the propensity of many to then abandon or replace their beliefs in favor of the crowd’s beliefs. That precisely describes the effect of media hype that led to the setting aside of the rule of law to bring about the wrongful conviction of Monsignor William Lynn.

You may have seen one of the many news media accounts over the last two weeks of Vatican officials summoned before the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on January 16 to address allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests. Wall Street Journal writer Liam Moloney reported on this story (“U.N. Panel Grills Vatican on Sex-Abuse Cases,” January 17, 2014). Whether it was the fault of Vatican officials or the WSJ writer is unclear, but the article was clumsy in its report of a very misleading claim:

“Vatican officials told the U.N. committee that it was aware of 612 new cases of clerical sexual abuse in 2 012, of which 418 involved minors.”

Those “new cases” were new only in the sense that they were reported to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when they first arose in 2012 – most accompanied by the inevitable demands for mediated financial settlements – but the claims themselves were far from “new.” The vast majority dated back anywhere from thirty to fifty years, many involving priests who are no longer alive to defend their names. The “victims” in these 612 new claims are not children. Most are men in their forties or fifties.

This has been typical of the quality of reporting on this story, but the sheer hypocrisy of it was revealed by turning just two more pages of that day’s Wall Street Journal. The Opinion Page on that same day carried an editorial by former CNN news anchor Campbell Brown entitled “Keeping Sex Predators Out of Schoolrooms” (WSJ, January 17, 2014).

Ms. Brown reported that in 2 010 alone, the Government Accountability Office found evidence of “hundreds of registered sex offenders working in schools” across the U.S. She also cited Department of Education research “estimating that millions of students are subjected to sexual misconduct during their school career.”

If the statistics of sexual misconduct by school personnel presented by Campbell Brown were extrapolated to include claims dating back fifty years – as has routinely been the case for accused Catholic priests – then the numbers would be staggering, and the indictment of education would far surpass the hype that lends itself to the notion that Catholic priests pose a special risk to children and young people – the same hype that sent Monsignor Lynn to prison.

In response to the government findings, Campbell Brown reported, Congress unanimously passed the Protecting Students from Sexual and Violent Predators Act. She also reported that the two most powerful teachers’ unions in the United States – the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers – both objected to components of that bill. There is no clearer indication of how distorted the media’s treatment of Catholic priests and the Catholic Church has become. These objections by the teachers’ unions were met with a media yawn. Could you imagine the uproar if, say, it was the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, or the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests that objected to the passage of that bill?

In a letter published in the WSJ (1/23) Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, stated that “The ATF is committed to implementing processes that protect both teachers from false allegations and children from wrongdoing. It doesn’t have to be either/or.” The AFT, according to he published letter, wants to “ensure fairness and due process, as well as transparency and expediency.”

There is no similar effort to ensure fairness or due process for accused Catholic priests. There is no organization – except perhaps the courageous but overwhelmed Opus Bono Sacerdotii led by Joe Maher and Pete Ferrara – that dares advocate for the rights of Catholic priests to due process and equal treatment under either civil or Church law. One priest and canon lawyer whom I recently approached on this subject told me that he no longer agrees to represent accused priests as Canonical Advocate because “wherever Church law favors the rights of priests to due process, U.S. bishops have either ignored it or dispensed themselves from having to observe it.” The justice we seek is overshadowed by the secrets we keep.

The reversal of the conviction of Monsignor William Lynn is the rarest of events in the midst of a witch hunt. Christine Flowers reminded us:

“People should be punished for the crimes they commit, not for the crimes we want to hold them responsible for. A wrongful conviction will not free the abused from their personal prisons. It will only feed the vengeful beast living within each of us, one that is only tamed by a blindfolded lady holding a scale.”

Lady Justice

About Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

The late Cardinal Avery Dulles and The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus encouraged Father MacRae to write. Cardinal Dulles wrote in 2005: “Someday your story and that of your fellow sufferers will come to light and will be instrumental in a reform. Your writing, which is clear, eloquent, and spiritually sound will be a monument to your trials.” READ MORE

Comments

  1. June says:

    “The justice we seek is overshadowed by the secrets we keep.” A sensitive line. One cannot but see the greatest liar in all. Who hates the Church the most? Who hates priests the most. Who hates truth the
    most? The Evil One. Our prayers must “ring” with “Deliver us from evil.” Amen and may the Good Lord continue to bless you, your writing and your wisdom and may He free you from all evil….nonetheless, it goes
    without saying, but I will say it: Your suffering is such a complete denial of evil that the evil one will lose…as God tells us, but in His own good time.

  2. Tom says:

    Your article about Monsignor Lynn and the disgusted prosecutor was great but you missed one point…Seth Williams is a POLITICIAN with prosecutorial powers. Too many elected politicians/prosecutors abuse their authority simply to make headlines and look “tough on crime” to curry favor with voters. The fact that he keeps putting his mug in front of cameras demonstrates my point.

    In Maryland we have a perfect example of this kind of politician. When Doug Gansler was States Attorney for Montgomery County he was so outrageous employing “trial by press conference and innuendo” that Maryland’s highest court, in a published opinion, held that “on numerous occasions, Gansler spoke outside of court about matters that had a substantial likelihood of depriving several criminal defendants of fair trials.” (See Attorney Grievance Commission v. Gansler, 377 Md. 656, 835 A.2d 548 (2003). So what happened to this man? Did the voters show him the door? No they did not. In fact, he is now the state’s attorney general and is a candidate for governor! Like Seth Williams, I am sure he too was often disgusted when he could not uphold a conviction because of those pesky constitutional rights, including the right to due process.

    I think this is why the federal system is a little better in terms of fairness. United States Attorneys are appointed and many do not use the job as a springboard to politics. Unfortunately, too many state prosecutors are more focused on placating voters and looking tough on crime by closing cases than they are in doing their constitutional duty of enforcing the rule of law in an objective manner, and to follow the facts to where they may lead. Seth Williams’ persecution (not a typo!) of Monsignor Lynn, in violation of the constitutional prohibition against ex post facto laws, demonstrates one of the reasons we had a revolution 200+ years ago. Retroactive application of a criminal statute can never be tolerated in the United States because once that line is crossed all kinds of tyranny can result. We must hold our public officials accountable to perform their duties according to the dictates of the constitution and not based on polls or personal vendettas against an organization like the Catholic Church. The fact that the chief prosecutor of any large city is disgusted when due process and the rule of law is observed is in itself disgusting! Voters need to show him the door!

  3. On the same day this excellent post was published, the truth of it was driven home to me in a letter from a priest I have known for two decades. He is 75 years old and has been an exemplary priest and servant of the poor. Now he will spend his retirement years under a dark cloud with no faculties to function as a priest or to even wear his Roman collar in public. He is one of the “new cases” of abuse cited by some Vatican officials before the UN. He has been accused of fondling a 14 yr. old boy sometime in 1967. That “boy” is 61 years old, and claims to have “recovered” this lucrative snippet of memory while in therapy this year. We need more articles like this one. We need the whole truth.

  4. Kathleen Riney says:

    Dear FATHER Keith!! God Bless & keep you! I’ve added you to my daily prayers.

  5. Bishop Pius says:

    Fr.G
    My humble prayers are with you.Joe Maher and Pete do not tire
    God bless

  6. Liz says:

    God bless Msgr. Lynn, Opus Bono and you all there, Fr. Gordon. We prayed for you today especially in our rosary and in other prayers. As Catholics, we just have to constantly and repeatedly, focus on heaven. I forget that frequently, but I know it’s true! Take care of yourself, Father, and please give my regards to Pornchai

  7. Erika says:

    The reason that I’ve heard of Catholics who feel angry at priests is that priests are held to a different, and higher, standard than everyone else.

    No matter what I said it was not enough to sway them. It seems to me that the fault heavily rests on the media. More often than not the media portrays Catholics in a (very) negative light. That’s completely skewed. What about all the amazing things that priests do every single day? What about Father McEvoy who makes me feel personally loved by Christ every time I come to Church? That won’t make the news .. and why not?! Because it’s doesn’t feed the vice of the masses.

    I come back to the first words of my RCIA program again and again. The first words in the course were these “We need faith because our world is full of death”. Indeed, that is so very true!

    And this faith that we are given as a gift of grace, it is cultivated and guided and supported by priests!! A priest is a most precious gift given to the world by the Creator of Heaven and Earth, for the sake of sinners, for the love of sinners.

    Thank GOD for priests. May they all be blessed and eternally protected. Saint Michael Archangel, protect all our clergy, seminarians, and all religious against the wickedness and snares of the devil.

  8. Esther says:

    Aloha Father Gordon and Father Keith:
    There are many people angry at priests. They believe the propaganda and lies about priests. And, of course, there are those who have personally suffered at the hands of priests and therefore feel betrayed. However, be assured that there are many others who love and respect all our priests. We offer you our daily prayers, speak out in your defense and will continue to do so. God bless.

  9. Gail Ramplen says:

    I am alarmed at the ease with which one can accuse a priest – no witnesses, no evidence – just a good sob story. Our priests are like sitting ducks! You can’t miss!

    I also have an issue with the non-admissibility of lie detector evidence. I think each accuser should be required to undergo three tests at different times, as well as the accused.

    And I have a real issue with plea-bargains which I believe are a serious corruption of the justice system – they need to be outlawed.

    Attorney-client privilege should be abandoned as well because it frustrates getting to the truth of things and prolongs the trial. sending up the expenses. Let the legal system concentrate on getting to the truth and spend more time in arguing mitigation if necessary.

  10. Keith says:

    Father G: As an accused priest, involuntarily laicized, who has also been sued for monetary compensation. I would like to inform your readers that our own legal advisers also don’t always have the accused’s best interest. When I mentioned to my lawyer that I was going to an informal meeting of priests who were also accused just for the support. He informed me that I was endangering the case, since the Diocese could legally subpoena each individual to testify on the content of such meetings and what I had shared with that group. In fact he mentioned that it was possible to convey that the group itself was co-conscripting against the Diocese! It took 5 years after the case was dropped for me to feel safe enough to meet with this group :-(

    • Liz says:

      Father Keith, my children and I prayed for you in our rosary the day that I read this (or perhaps it was the day after.) Anyway, remember that you are always a priest and nobody can remove that beautiful mark on your soul…a priest forever. God bless you

      • Mary Jean Scudieri says:

        Father Keith, you were laicized by human error. God still sees you as His priest as do many of us reading this. Adding you to my prayers, Jeannie

    • Maria Stella says:

      Father Keith, I will pray for you by name when I pray for accused and imprisoned priests especially when I pray the Stations of the Cross.

      May God bless you, and may Our Lady cover your with her mantle of protection and love.

Comments that are courteous and on topic are most welcomed. Please note that they are held in moderation. Comments Policy

*