By Ralph Cipriano
Defense attorney Thomas A. Bergstrom was trying to convince Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina that she didn't have the authority to send his client, Msgr. William J. Lynn, back to jail.
The judge, however, wasn't buying it. "Bail revoked," she ruled. The prisoner is "ordered back into custody."
"Can you call for a sheriff please," the judge cooly instructed a court officer. Then she disappeared back into chambers.
Moments later, a sheriff's deputy showed up to take away the monsignor, who had sat quietly with his head down during the half-hour proceedings. After 18 months in jail and 16 months of house arrest, the official scapegoat for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia had his ticket punched for the bus back to prison, so he could continue his atonement for the sins of the church.
Judge Sarmina convened a hearing at 9 a.m. this morning in Courtroom 601 of the Criminal Justice Center to address a motion filed by the district attorney's office to revoke bail and send Lynn back to jail.
Arguing on behalf of the Commonwealth was Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington, the prosecutor who put Lynn away. On June 22, 2012, a jury heeded Blessington's arguments and convicted the monsignor on one count of endangering the welfare of a child.
Judge Sarmina, who presided over Lynn's trial, then sentenced the monsignor to 3 to 6 years in jail.
Blessington, who with his thick mop of white hair and droopy mustache looks like he stepped out of a Frederic Remington painting, told the judge that this was the fourth time he's had to make this argument, "the fourth time this guilty defendant should be denied bail."
Lynn got out of jail when the state Superior Court on Dec. 26, 2013, overturned his conviction and ordered the prisoner to be "released forthwith." Judge Sarmina, however, decided instead to impose conditions of house arrest on Lynn.
The monsignor was confined to living on two floors of St. William's, a Northeast Philadelphia rectory, where he had to wear an electronic bracelet on his ankle at all times, and report weekly to a court officer supervising his release.
Enter the state Supreme Court. In a 4-1 decision on Monday, the justices reversed the reversal of the state Superior Court. The state Supreme Court's 60-page opinion, however, focused on a narrow section of the state's original 1972 child endangerment law, namely the question of whether Lynn fell under the law's definition of an "other person supervising the welfare of a child."
The law says, "A parent, guardian or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age commits an offense if he knowingly endangers the welfare of a child by violating a duty of care, protection or support."
Former District Attorney Lynne Abraham and a 2005 grand jury had already stated in writing that the law didn't apply to Lynn. The state Superior Court decided that under the original child endangerment law, Lynn did not meet the definition of an "other person supervising the welfare of a child."
The argument was that Lynn was a supervisor of priests who had direct contact with children, not somebody who had direct contact with children, such as a parent or guardian. The state's child endangerment law has since been amended to include supervisors such as Lynn.
Four state Supreme Court justices, however, decided on Monday that under the original child endangerment law, Lynn fit the definition of an "other person supervising the welfare of a child."
So the state Supreme Court justices reversed the reversal of the state Superior Court, and sent the case back to Superior Court, where other appellate issues remain from Lynn's trial. Such as whether Judge Sarmina erred by allowing into evidence 21 supplemental cases of sex abuse in the archdiocese dating back to 1948, three years before the 64-year-old Lynn was born.
Reading the state Supreme Court's 60-page opinion, Blessington said, "brings it all back in sharp focus what this defendant did."
When Lynn went to jail, he became the first Catholic administrator in the country to be imprisoned for not adequately supervising predator priests.
It was a "historic decision," Blessington told the judge, "because of historically bad conduct."
Here Blessington was talking about the sins of the church as revealed in a 2005 grand jury report. The grand jury found that two Philadelphia archbishops, the late Cardinals John Krol and Anthony Bevilacqua, had orchestrated a systematic cover up spanning four decades that successfully kept from prosecution 63 priests who had sexually abused hundreds of children.
The grand jury found that Lynn, the archdiocese's former secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, employed "incompetent investigation techniques" and kept parishioners and police in the dark at the behest of Cardinal Bevilacqua.
Lynn's lawyers countered that one of the monsignor's first official acts was to draw up a list of 35 priests in active ministry accused of abuse. Formerly confidential church documents revealed that Cardinal Bevilacqua subsequently ordered Lynn's list to be shredded.
Lynn was still guilty of shielding child abusers, Blessington argued. The monsignor "facilitated and supported monsters in clerical garb who destroyed the souls of children, Blessingon told the court, quoting Judge Sarmina's previous words of condemnation against Lynn.
"The conviction's back in, he should go back in," Blessington told the judge about Lynn. "It's that simple."
"You were right," Blessington told the judge about her original decision that the 1972 child endangerment law applied to Lynn. "They were wrong," Blessington said about the Superior Court's reversal of Lynn's conviction.
After Blessington sat down, and it was Bergstrom's turn to argue, he began by saying, "I think we need to take a deep breath."
Bergstrom told Judge Sarmina that when the state Supreme Court made its ruling, the Supreme Court "did not affirm [Lynn's] conviction."
"I don't think you have the authority to revoke his bail," Bergstrom told the judge. The Superior Court order calling for Lynn to be "discharged forthwith" is "still in effect," Bergstrom asserted.
Judge Sarmina, however, wasn't buying it. They only reason she let Lynn out of jail, the judge told Bergstrom, was because of the state Superior Court's reversal of Lynn's conviction.
"I have to consider the fact that I did get it wrong," she said about whether the state's original child endangerment law applied to Lynn.
The state Supreme Court, however, decided she got it right, the judge said. So that means Lynn belongs back in jail.
Bergstrom got upset.
"What gives you the right to revoke bail," he argued.
"What gives me the authority," she answered. "That the only reason I let him out," she repeated, was the reversal of Lynn's conviction by the state Superior Court, which has now been reversed.
"It's a farce," the assistant district attorney said about Bergstrom's arguments. "A reversal of a reversal is a status quo."
That means his conviction still stands, and so does his sentence, Blessington argued.
Bergstrom began to respond, but the judge warned, "Don't raise your voice."
Richard Lawrence, a pretrial officer in charge of conditional release, was sworn in to testify about whether the monsignor has complied with Judge Sarmina's terms of house arrest.
Earlier in the hearing, Judge Sarmina had raised the question of whether Lynn was making too many trips to Bergstrom's office. She preferred that Bergstrom go see Lynn at the rectory.
Bergstrom explained that Lynn hasn't made many trips to his office. Most of Lynn's visits had to do with responding to a civil suit filed against the archdiocese by Billy Doe. He's former 10-year-old altar boy whose alleged rape was the basis for Lynn's conviction for endangering the welfare of a child.
"Father Lynn has observed every possible rule," Lawrence told the judge. "He never out more than one day a week."
When he does go out, Lynn always "comes home early," Lawrence told the judge. The monsignor has always been very humble and done everything that was asked of him.
"I have no complaint at all," Lawrence said.
It didn't seem to make any difference to the judge.
After she ordered Lynn to be taken back into custody, the monsignor, dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans, shrugged his shoulders and went meekly along with the deputy.
Before Lynn left, Lawrence came over and shook his hand.
"I tried," the court official told the monsignor.
Blessington declined comment, saying he never speaks to reporters. Even when he wins.
Outside the Criminal Justice Center, Bergstrom was still seething.
"We're not gonna surrender on this," Bergstom told a crowd of reporters.
"She has no jurisdiction," Bergstrom said about Judge Sarmina. The state Supreme Court has remanded the Lynn case back to the state Superior Court, the defense lawyer said. And that's where Bergstrom was headed, to file an emergency motion for bail.
"She's been wrong before and she's wrong again," Bergstrom said about Judge Sarmina. "We're gonna prove it."
Asked if his client was surprised by the judge's ruling, Bergstrom replied, "He expected it. We both did. This wasn't a surprise. Trust me."
Bergstrom has previously described Lynn as perhaps the only client he ever defended who was truly innocent.
Lynn never met Billy Doe, Bergstrom said. The monsignor had left his post as secretary for clergy for five years when the former altar boy came forward to make his accusations.
One man and one man alone has repeatedly been held accountable for the sins of the archdiocese, the defense lawyer lamented.
"It's a modern-day lynching," Bergstrom said.