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.”
Among 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.”