Judge clears way for retrial of ex-Philadelphia monsignor

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Friday, March 24, 2017
File - In this Jan. 6, 2014 file photo, Monsignor William Lynn walks from the criminal justice center after a bail hearing, in Philadelphia.

PHILADELPHIA -- A Catholic church official's 14-year legal odyssey over his handling of sex-abuse complaints won't end anytime soon after a Philadelphia judge said Friday he would be retried on child endangerment charges.

Monsignor William Lynn had served nearly three years of a three- to six-year sentence when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court tossed his conviction because of trial errors in late 2015. That was the second time Lynn's conviction had been thrown out after a sweeping 2012 trial that unearthed decades of hidden complaints from locked vaults at the archdiocese.

Lynn, 66, appeared weary but unfazed after the ruling Friday. He will be back in court next week for the judge to decide how many church-abuse victims can testify at the second trial. Lynn's lawyers must also decide whether to appeal the ruling and try again to have the case dismissed.

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams - who revived the case after his predecessor reluctantly concluded no church leaders could be charged in 2005 - is in his last year of office and under federal indictment. Eight people are running to succeed him.

"They can't dismiss the case. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars were spent investigating the archdiocese and prosecuting Lynn, so what's the next prosecutor going to do?" asked defense lawyer Jeffrey Lindy, who represented Lynn for a decade, but is no longer involved in the case. "They're not going to say, 'OK, we proved our point, let's go away.'"

Lynn could also try to negotiate a plea with a time-served sentence, although he has not been interested in plea talks in the past.

Lynn is accused of endangering a single altar boy, a city policeman's son who testified that he was abused in about 1998 by a priest transferred to his parish. Lynn was the longtime secretary for clergy, who reviewed 50 years' worth of complaints kept in locked files to prepare a list of problem priests, including the one in question, William Avery, whom Lynn labeled a suspected predator. Lynn told jurors he made the list to try to address the problem, only to have Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua have it destroyed.

After years of twists and turns in Lynn's case, the defense argued for the first time in December that prosecutors hid exculpatory evidence that the altar boy, who battled years of heroin abuse, was not credible. He testified that he was molested by two priests and a Catholic school teacher - and all three, including Avery, were convicted.

An independent psychiatrist concluded in 2015 that his accounts were so inconsistent it was impossible to know if he had ever been sexually abused, according to a defense motion filed seeking to block a retrial. The evaluation apparently came as part of the young man's lawsuit against the archdiocese, which was settled for an undisclosed sum after the criminal trial.

Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Gwendolyn Bright refused to dismiss Lynn's case Friday over that issue, but said the argument was not frivolous and offered Lynn the chance to appeal before she sets a trial date. The defense will consider the option.

The defense has also complained that Lynn is the victim of selective prosecution, given that Bevilancqua and Cardinal Justin Rigali were excoriated in two grand jury reports but never charged.

Williams, who is accused of taking more than $100,000 in gifts in exchange for official favors, remains in office.

If the case is retried, Bright wants fewer than a dozen church-abuse victims to testify about their hidden complaints. The first trial allowed 23 such witnesses, providing weeks of testimony the appeals court later called unfair.

"We're not in the business of overkill," Bright said.