Ruling on church official could favor ex-PSU administrators
The reversed conviction of a former Roman Catholic Church official could be a big win for the defense for three former Penn State University executives accused of shielding pedophile Jerry Sandusky, several attorneys said Friday.
“Certainly, the court's opinion puts a big hole in the commonwealth's case” against the ex-administrators, said Donna McClelland, a Pittsburgh trial lawyer and former deputy attorney general. She said the reversal for Monsignor William Lynn, 62, could weaken felony charges of child endangerment against Tim Curley, Gary Schultz and Graham Spanier, but not their related charges of perjury, obstruction of justice and failure to report.
Lynn was the first U.S. church official convicted for the handling of clergy abuse complaints when a Philadelphia jury found him guilty in June 2012. A Superior Court panel on Thursday unanimously rejected prosecution arguments that Lynn was legally accountable for the welfare of an abused boy in the late 1990s.
The panel reasoned that a Pennsylvania child endangerment law did not hold responsible the supervisors of workers who dealt directly with children. Supervisors first accepted legal responsibility for the welfare of those children in January 2007, when lawmakers reworked the rules, according to the panel.
Legal observers said the opinion could reach the state Supreme Court in ongoing litigation. For the time being, the panel's thinking matches a key defense argument in the Penn State case, said Downtown-based attorney Caroline Roberto. She represents Curley, a former athletic director accused of concealing concerns about Sandusky after reported campus incidents in 1998 and 2001.
“The charges are an example of prosecutorial overreach, and we will continue to vigorously fight the charges,” Roberto wrote via email.
Attorneys for Spanier, former university president, and Schultz, former vice president, could not be reached, though all three defendants maintain their innocence as they await trial. State prosecutors are reviewing the Superior Court decision about Lynn, said spokesman Joe Peters.
He emphasized the charges in the Penn State case allege administrators committed crimes before and after 2007, including when they testified before the grand jury investigating Sandusky. Prosecutors have said the men's failure to alert authorities lasted through 2011, endangering children as recently as 2008.
Meanwhile, Lynn remains in state prison in Waymart as a trial court revisits that case.
“I don't believe we've heard the end of his case. I think there is a way that the Supreme Court could reverse this” overturned conviction, said Wesley Oliver, director of the criminal justice program at Duquesne University.
At the same time, he expects the defense in the Penn State case to comb through the 43-page panel opinion clearing Lynn.
“I would be very surprised if they didn't start typing the second they discovered the case,” Oliver said. “Unless this case is reversed, this is a huge win for Curley, Schultz and Spanier.”
Sandusky, 69, is serving a 30- to 60-year state prison sentence in Waynesburg for abusing 10 boys over 15 years, often on Penn State property. A Centre County jury convicted him in June 2012.
Because Sandusky retired in 1999, defense attorneys could argue that Curley, Schultz and Spanier were no longer his legal supervisors when the state tightened child endangerment laws in 2007, observers said.
Still, Bucks County civil attorney and child advocate Marci A. Hamilton said the Lynn decision should not affect the Penn State cases in any meaningful sense.
It has “no relation to the charges of lying to the grand jury” and is “a small legal decision in the larger war against abuse,” said Hamilton, who has represented two men identified as Sandusky victims.
“It is a criminal law technicality that will have no effect on any civil cases,” she wrote via email.
Penn State announced in October that it would pay out $59.7 million to 32 men alleging abuse by Sandusky.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or email@example.com.