Trophy Justice: The Philadelphia Monsignor William Lynn Case

A bizarre twist in the case of Philadelphia Msgr. William Lynn raises a troubling specter of wrongful conviction and trophy justice for some accused priests.

It’s NOT always sunny in Philadelphia. The story of the imprisonment of Monsignor William Lynn darkens a gathering cloud of injustice over a city called America’s Cradle of Liberty. It’s a story of “trophy justice,” an ominous term for anyone concerned with due process and freedom from tyranny.

Trophy justice skirts the fine line between prosecution and persecution. It’s the sort of “justice” that can evolve when a defendant’s prosecution doesn’t just right a perceived wrong, but also helps enhance a prosecutor’s career, or public profile, or ego. The term describes what the now disgraced and disbarred rogue prosecutor, Mike Nifong tried to inflict upon three young college students as I wrote in “Sex, Lies, and Videotape: Lessons from a Duke University Sex Scandal.”

The lesson was lost on Philadelphia. The conviction and imprisonment of Monsignor William Lynn on a single count of child endangerment may well be a case of trophy justice. It remains a gross debasement of due process, a story I first wrote of in “Why Are So Many Catholics So Angry with So Many Priests?” Here’s a portion of that post:

“There was a great deal wrong with that prosecution which bordered on persecution. Msgr. Lynn was not convicted of that charge because he is guilty. There was no evidence that he ever set out to endanger anyone. He was convicted because he is a priest . . . [The] news media convicted him before he ever set foot in a courtroom. The trial itself was just pro forma.

“One Philadelphia defense attorney who reads These Stone Walls described this trial as ‘justice with an agenda.’ She wrote that few in Philadelphia are now very proud of this ‘District Attorney with an ax to grind, and a judge who appeared to work for the prosecution.’ When law is reduced to a lynch mob in this arena of decades-old child abuse claims, the jury is in before the trial even starts.

“Those who would tritely say that Monsignor Lynn had his day in court and justice prevailed have no first hand knowledge of the prolific injustices that have permeated our justice system.”

For too many Americans, perceptions of the justice system are built not from experience or observation, but from popular television shows like “Law and Order” which rarely portray the reality of false accusations and wrongful convictions. On TV, police and prosecutors agonize in the nation’s courtrooms to always do the right thing, but shows like “Law and Order” fail to expose the danger of trophy justice, and the growing prevalence of plea bargains to resolve cases without justly determining guilt or innocence. On “Law and Order,” virtually every case ends with a trial.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a riveting front page account of modern criminal justice in a detailed article by Gary Fields and John R. Enshwiller entitled “Federal Guilty Pleas Soar As Bargains Trump Trials” (WSJ, Sept. 24, 2012). The article revealed that 97% of federal criminal convictions last year were a result of plea deals and not trials. According to the article:

“This relentless growth in plea bargaining has sparked a backlash among lawyers, legal scholars and judges – evidenced by recent federal court decisions including two from the Supreme Court. Weighing on many critics is the possibility . . . that the innocent could feel pressured into pleading guilty.”

A related article concluded, “Academic Study Shows Innocent Plead Guilty at High Rate.” The study was alarming in that 55% of its subjects admitted guilt to something they did not do. Barry Scheck and the Innocence Project have also revealed that of the hundreds of DNA-based exonerations nationwide – exonerations that prove without question that either no crime was committed or the wrong person was convicted – 25% were convicted by plea deals. I wrote of two such cases in “Thy Brother’s Keeper: Why Wrongful Convictions Should Matter to You.”

Plea deals are especially a threat to truth and justice in high profile cases in which police, prosecutors, and judges can become so blinded by “the message” they’re sending, or the career boost that a high profile case brings, that justice itself is lost in the intensity of media spotlights. Such prosecutions require extra caution and judicial oversight for they are subject to all manner of human agendas having nothing to do with justice.

I mentioned the outcome of the Msgr. William Lynn case in “Indicted We Stand: Penance, Penn State, and Catholic Culture.” Msgr. Lynn now sits in prison because justice has been debased in Philadelphia, and blinded by the light, and it seems eerily familiar to me. It was a conviction that came not as a response to evidence, but to an emotional bias built by charged rhetoric and media glare.


Having been on the receiving end of trophy justice, I have come to recognize it when I see its ugly face. As I began to type this post, I received a letter from Bill Donohue at The Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. Ever vigilant to help assure both liberty and justice for Catholics, Bill Donohue summed up two situations you’ve read of on These Stone Walls:

“The injustice done to you is mirrored in the appalling overreaction to some inartful expressions by Fr. Benedict Groeschel . . . But it is the obscene injustice that has been done to Msgr. Lynn in Philadelphia that is most disturbing right now.”

This case gets quickly convoluted, so bear with me. The charge of child endangerment against Msgr. Lynn was contingent upon guilt in another case, that of Father Edward Avery, charged with sexually assaulting a ten-year old boy thirteen years ago in 1999, and now laicized. The Father Avery case did not go to trial so evidence – if there was any – was never tested before a jury. Instead, Avery accepted a plea deal last March to serve a prison sentence of two-and-a-half to five years.

The alleged victim in that case, a 23-year-old man awaiting settlements in a civil lawsuit, never testified under oath in the case against Father Avery because of the plea deal. He only testified in the subsequent trial of Msgr. William Lynn charged with child endangerment for assigning Father Avery to the young man’s parish in the 1990s. In that high profile media-hyped trial, a jury acquitted Msgr. Lynn of most of the charges brought by the Philadelphia D.A., but convicted him of a single count of child endangerment for his perceived role in the Father Avery case.

Judge M. Teresa Sarmina then sentenced Msgr. Lynn to three to six years in prison, a longer prison term than that given in the plea deal to Father Avery, the priest alleged to have abused the boy. The justice aimed at Father Avery was to punish a man for a crime. The justice aimed at Msgr. Lynn was to send a message to the Catholic Church. Since the priest’s plea deal and Msgr. Lynn’s conviction, the judge has refused to consider any form of conditional release for Msgr. Lynn pending appeal. The “trophy” remains in prison.

Now comes Ralph Cipriano, a veteran reporter who in the 1990s was religion reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was recruited by The Beasley Firm to blog about the case of “The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. William J. Lynn, et al.” Mr. Cipriano is one of 30 journalists accredited by the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office to cover this important case. The result is the Philadelphia Priest Abuse Trial Blog.

The title of Ralph Cipriano’s September 17 post on that blog leaves nothing to the imagination: “Defense: Secret Polygraph Test Indicates Father Avery Never Assaulted 10-Year-Old Altar Boy, So Monsignor Lynn Was Convicted of a Crime That Never Happened.” The post goes on to reveal that Father Avery was subjected to a polygraph test. The polygraph results supported Avery’s initial statements that he did not know his accuser, had never even met him, and never sexually assaulted the young man who has been identified throughout both criminal proceedings and lawsuits simply as “Billy Doe.”

Father Avery passed the polygraph. An article by John P. Martin in the Philadelphia Inquirer (“Lawyers claim priest’s plea deal was a lie,” Sept. 18, 2012) revealed that the attractive plea deal offer came when Avery’s lawyer released the polygraph results to the Philadelphia prosecutors. Even when accepting the plea deal, Avery “denied having engaged in sexual contact” with the accuser, and “explicitly informed the Commonwealth that he was entering into his guilty plea solely for the purpose of . . . reducing the risk of a far greater prison sentence after trial.”

The deal given to Father Avery had one condition. He also had to agree to plead guilty to conspiracy in the case against Msgr. Lynn and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Father Avery was supposed to face trial along with Msgr. Lynn, but that changed when he accepted the plea deal.

According to John Martin’s Philadelphia Inquirer article, prosecutors never told Monsignor William Lynn’s defense of the polygraph results in the case of Father Avery. The lawyers learned of this only by chance, and claim that the failure violates court rules that require prosecutors to inform the defense of all information that could help a defendant prove his innocence. “We all sort of suspected that Avery didn’t do it,” Msgr. Lynn’s lawyers stated. “But we didn’t know he told the Commonwealth that.”

This story could use the likes of another TV law and order icon. New York City Police Commissioner Frank Reagan might be trusted to sift through all the news media minefields that so often distort justice these days, and to get to the unbiased truth. Frank Reagan could do this. He does it every week on TV’s best foot forward in a show called “Blue Bloods.”

In a recent episode, Commissioner Reagan and his prosecutor daughter, Erin, discovered evidence that a man they put behind bars years earlier may in fact have been innocent. They launched their own investigation to correct their error and help free the wrongfully convicted man. The Reagan’s did what they do every week: the right thing.

But it’s still TV, and it doesn’t always happen that way. In Philadelphia, prosecutors have had no comment on the public revelation of something they knew all along, but kept hidden. Meanwhile, “Billy Doe’s” contingency lawyer – apparently seeing dollar signs fade – described the new development simply as “complete BS.”

The Church is not without blame in this debacle. When priests are falsely accused, they typically cannot afford a defense and their bishops too often throw them to the litigious wolves. For both guilty and innocent alike, the lure of plea deals is then used to further prosecute the Church. In his most recent entry at “A Ram in the Thicket,” Catholic writer Ryan MacDonald wrote of an eerily similar account of priests, polygraphs, and coerced plea deals.

In a recent comment, TSW reader, Antoinette added a quote from Venerable Fulton Sheen, and it’s this week’s last word:

“One of the greatest disasters that happened to modern civilization was for democracy to inscribe ‘liberty’ on its banners instead of ‘justice.’ Because ‘liberty’ was considered the ideal, it was not long before some men interpreted it as meaning ‘freedom from justice.'”  (Archbishop Fulton Sheen, “A Declaration of Dependence”)


Click here for some satire from Nifonging your way to success

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


  1. Linda R. says:

    This was a hard post for me to read. May the Lord keep these poor priests and let His justice be done upon them.

  2. Anthony Wheeler says:

    As Dorothy recommended, I clicked on and read the Ryan MacDonald link at the end of this post, and she was right. It’s one of the scariest stories I have read of a judge and a justice system run amok. These two riveting articles, the one by MacDonald, and this one on trophy justice should be required reading in every law school and seminary.

  3. Bea says:

    This reminds me of a line in “Pretty Boy Floyd”, a song sung by Woodie Guthrie, Seegar and Bob Dylan: “Well, as through the world I’ve rambled, I’ve seen lots of funny men. Some rob you with a sixgun, some with a fountain pen.”

  4. nana says:

    These men who are falsely accused and/or convicted are the saints of this century; for Blessed are the persecuted. Their example of forgiveness of their enemies will be noted in Heaven and will feed the renewal of faith in our world.

  5. Joel Torczon says:

    I thank my friend, Barbara Edsall, for alerting me to this excellent post, the circumstances which I find to be appalling beyond belief. Is there no decency left among those we entrust to see that justice is served? I can only wonder whether such prosecutors and judges who seek “trophy justice” are those who have turned their backs on God, allowing sin to make them so stupid — if not evil.

  6. Lynda Finneran says:

    “Plea bargains” are an affront to justice. Justice is not negotiable. There are some few situations where they may be acceptable to avoid an otherwise imminent greater evil. Fr Avery ought never to have pleaded guilty to something he was not guilty of. That is immoral and it is acceptable on the part of anyone but more particularly on the part of a priest. To plead guilty when not so guilty is a very serious moral infraction. It is an assault on truth and justice – collusion against truth and justice. Fr Avery was badly served by his lawyers if they advised him to sign his name to such a serious lie. Lawyers who knowingly advise an innocent client to plead guilty is guilty of gross professional misconduct and ought to be disbarred. To subvert truth and justice in this way not only harms the defendant but puts other accused persons at risk of injustice – as is particularly so in this case. To lie in the hope of getting less of a punishment is always wrong – as it was in Fr McRae’s case. The culpability of the defendant can vary widely according to his knowledge, duress, etc. but there is no excuse for the lawyers involved. And priests ought to be especially prepared to suffer for the truth. Moreover, the more it is practised, the more innocents will be pressured into colluding with such false pleas. The widespread use of what is inherently unjust, brings the whole justice system into disrepute and makes it unfit for purpose. To play into the hands of false accusers in his way is reprehensible. Fr Lynn was directly injured by Fr Avery’s false plea but there are many others indirectly injured. Such pleas make things very difficult for innocent persons accused in he future, and deceive the public. The justice system can never operate fairly and honestly while plea bargains are widespread, and even while they are accepted in principle.

    • TerryC says:

      Unfortunately it is a lawyers job to defend his client to the best of his ability. Juries are notoriously unpredictable when it comes to returning a verdict. If a lawyer believes that his innocent client may be convicted because circumstantial evidence is very damning he would be remiss to allow an innocent person to turn down a plea deal that would reduce his sentence or save his life.
      Law courts are not based on truth, but on evidence and provable fact. It doesn’t matter how true a fact is if it can’t be proven. Likewise it doesn’t matter, in the eyes of the court, if a fact is a lie if that also is unprovable.

      • TerryC says:

        I should also say that most defendants are not as brave as Fr. MacRae, to suffer the injustice of wrongful conviction rather than falsely admit guilt.

      • Lynda Finneran says:

        That is incorrect. A lawyer is an officer of the court and has a positive duty to assist in the proper administration of justice, which includes not lying to the court on any matter at issue in the case. Lying or colluding to lie to the court is not doing the best for one’s client either morally or at law. It is not in the defendant’s best interests to plead guilty to a charge that he is not guilty of, for fear that he would be erroneously found guilty at trial. It is to, inter alia, preempt the Court and deny the defendant his right to a (fair) trial, and appeal if necessary. The lawyers who persuaded/allowed Fr MacRae to plead guilty in respect of certain alleged offences/complainants were in serious dereliction of duty.

        • Dorothy R. Stein says:

          I understand the points being made by both Terry C. and Lynda. It is true that lawyers must defend their clients, innocent or guilty, to the best of their ability. However it is also true that the reality of plea bargains is that they serve the guilty well but not the innocent. From my experience, the guilty are inclined to accept plea bargains simply because they are guilty and risk exposure to long sentences for being guilty if they go to trial. Innocent defendants like Father MacRae are far more inclined to maintain their right to a fair trial because they cannot bring themselves to plead guilty to something they didn’t do. It is justice turned on its head when the guilty serve short sentences while the innocent languish in prison. The point made by Lynda is also true, but the problem with the post-trial guilty plea in Father MacRae’s case is that at the end of his trial his lawyer abandoned the case. He left the trial even before the prosecutor’s closing argument. He did this, apparently, out of frustration at the lack of willingness of Church officials to assist with a defense and to help investigate the case. Church officials publicly declared Father MacRae guilty before the trial even started. It’s an abomination of justice . When the trial was over, Father MacRae was coerced into a plea deal on remaining but related charges with a deal for zero additional prison time. To get a sense of this, just read that link by Ryan A. MacDonald at the end of this post on Trophy Justice.

  7. Dorothy R. Stein says:

    I do not comment frequently, but I always read Fr. MacRae’s posts. He has a talent for making very crooked paths straight and convoluted topics clearer, and he had done that again with this post. But this left me with ice in my veins. It strikes me that any of us can be hauled before a court and subjected to such a debacle of injustice with no recourse as long as the media is there ready to hype it up. This is not the American justice that built this nation. My blood became even icier when I clicked on that link at the end and read that horror story put forth by Ryan MacDonald. For whatever reason, Fr. MacRae chose not to include its full title in his post, but I hope everyone clicks on that link and reads it. This is the time of year for horror stories and that one is among the scariest of them all.

  8. Hidden One says:

    Fiat justitia ruat caelum.

    The Divine Judge will settle these matters properly with time, whether in this life or the next.

  9. Mary Anne Walker says:

    Dear Father,
    This is my first exposure to all this. I have been reading “Catholic Priests Falsely Accused” and I am just appalled. First the Bishops covered up true abuse and protected the perpetrators. Now, as these terrible birds come home to roost the current Bishops are throwing good, honest, holy priests under the bus. I cannot imagine what this must be like for all of you who have been affected. I also cannot imagine what the apostles and Jesus himself are thinking- I know in my heart they are crying.
    Please be assured of my daily prayers for you and all your innocent brothers.
    Mary AnneWalker

  10. Judy Stefencavage says:

    Father MacRae.
    I live in Phila and read a lot about the trial while it was ongoing. The Judge showed outrageous predjudice against the Church, making prejudicial comments. I felt soo bad for Monsignor Lynn.

    Dissension is running rampant in the Church, and the devil is clapping his hands and licking his lips. The scandal seems to be moving from the priest’s alleged actions to the Church officials and the way they are distancing themselves from the accused priests, regardless of their guilt. I will continue to pray for you, Msgr. Lynn and the priests: all of them!

  11. Barbara Edsall says:

    I feel overwhelmed by what I have just read. Perhaps I will be able to write more later.

    Praying for freedom and vindication for you, Msgr. Lynn and all the others.


    • Liz says:

      I too felt overwhelmed by this post. I actually had to read a little and then stop for awhile and then read a little more. It’s so hard to just *read* about it, I cannot imagine living it! Anyway, you echoed my own sentiments, Barbara. God bless you, Fr. Gordon and Msgr. Lynn is in my prayers.

      • Barbara Edsall says:

        Thank you and bless you, Liz.

        It’s Thursday late afternoon and at least I can breathe now.

        Father, my husband almost died two weeks ago during what was supposed to be a routine outpatient surgery. No one at the big-city cancer facility seemed to know what to do when his blood pressure suddenly shot through the roof after an injection of epinephrine. However, the ER doctor and staff of a Catholic hospital in the same city spent the next 4-1/2 hours too busy saving Ron’s life to worry about a little skin cancer.

        Thanks be to God, we went together to 8am Mass the next morning.

        This has altered my perspective somewhat. Hence, Lord willing, you will receive another communication of a slightly different nature from us early in November.

        If I could see into your near future, though of course I can’t, I would hope it would read “Justice and mercy shall kiss.” Perhaps it isn’t the exact quote but it is my heart.


  12. Edward.Fullerton says:

    Fr Gordon , Later today I shall remember all you have mentioned in your post,Fr Edward.Avery & Msgr william.lynn and any priests,all priests of the Catholic church ,which includes the laity who have suffered this monstrous persecution of the One true religion. Victims too I shall remember before ,during the adoration today, IHS. More given ,more is expected in return as sacred scripture tells us ,IHS.

  13. Mary Jean Scudieri says:

    Hi Father Gordon!
    The church cannot afford to defend their priests but they can afford to throw money at the “victims”.
    I still don’t understand how money makes it all go away. I wouldn’t change what happened. It doesn’t stop the pain, grace and forgiveness does.
    A surgeon botched my son’s neurological operation which caused him to leak spinal fluid from the head and develop meningitis from which he almost died. He admitted to talking a short cut because he thought he was too good to make a mistake.He then rescheduled another operation without consulting me.I found out when someone came in to have me sign a consent form for surgery scheduled for the next day.I called him and told him he was fired and that I would never let him touch my son again. He apologized at that point and probably thought I was going to sue him. I found out later that he had a lawsuit pending for another botched operation.I refused to sue because money wasn’t going to change what happened. God made me see that anger had to give way to forgiveness. He needed to be removed from botching operations.
    The punishment has to fit the crime but only if there is a crime, and only to those who have committed it, beyond a doubt.
    Msgr Lynn is a sad part of the backlash to the way this whole scandal has been handled. The Church has much to answer to God for what it has allowed to happen to the innocent because of it, especially to you.
    I feel at this point they really don’t know how to stem the bleeding. We are a suffering Church as Christ suffered for us.
    The media feeds the sensational whether truth or falsehood and champions those it wants to promote. Just witness this current presidential election. Lies and arrogant nastiness gets the kudos. Attack and injustice is glorified. The real America, our one nation under God, is fighting to be restored again. It will take prayer and strong voices but Heaven will prevail.
    God bless you and Pornchai and all the other good people there under your care. We will be your voice! Your friend, Jeannie

  14. Gail Ramplen says:

    Wow! The American Justice set-up (in more ways than one!) has really got itself into a load of muck that will be difficult to rub out of the annals of history. Your politicians are falling into ever greater disrepute. Unfortunately, it is not only in your country. Politicians all over are falling over themselves to fall into the same pit.
    I can only say: Fathers, your reward will be great in Heaven! Not too sure about the happy future of these corrupt people that put our priests in prison wrongfully. Land of the Free…. Ha! Ha! Ha!
    God bless you Fathers. Trust in God – He is mightier than the USA and vengeance belongs to Him. Praying for you constantly. Gail Ramplen

  15. paulineo says:

    Not too long ago, I was shown a long list of the many jobs in the world, and was not surprised to see, that there was one category in whom the public had no trust whatsoever; Lawyers were at the bottom of the list. No one trusts them! There is the law, but no justice!

    Our poor priests; even their bishops abandon them. Would any of the apostles have done to their priests, what the modern bishop has done to priests in their care?

    All I can do is pray and make sacrifices and make many hours of adoration to the Blessed Sacrament.

  16. Rev. Joe Coffey says:

    Fr. G, Thank you for this post. I have known Msgr. Bill Lynn since my first day of seminary in 1990. He was the Dean of Men. I know him to be a good, holy, and honorable priest. I am praying every day for him and for you that justice would be done and all who have been unjustly imprisoned would be released from jail. God bless you. Fr. J.

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