Six years in prison for Monsignor William Lynn, former clergy secretary in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia because of his complicity in sexual abuse of minors; $60 million in fines to Penn State and its football program for similar indifference towards a coach. These despicable events are linked by a defect in American society. There is little public conscience to protect those speaking truth to power.
Particularly sad is how these recent events distort what should be an uplifting faith in an institution. Does not Penn State make of its football a weekly religion, replete with dedicated blue-and-white, competing ritually in an arena for honor? Does not Catholic America consider the bishop’s office the watchtower of a living faith? We all regret the sins and sympathize with the victims, but unless we recognize the climate that has fostered wrongdoing and change, these events will be repeated.
The failure to be feared the most lies with the university favoring football wins over integrity and with the clericalism that prefers loyalty over virtue. In short, there is a moral void in American society that does not reward whistle blowing against the interests of an institution.
I think the case of Philadelphia’s Monsignor Lynn is the more tragic because it is clearly religious. Similar cover-ups of abuses occur in other institutions, but because more is expected from the Catholic Church, the betrayal is worse. The court sentenced the priest to three to six years in prison, which is not the maximum sought by the prosecution, but far more than the simple house arrest or work release proposed by the monsignor’s attorneys.Consider what that will mean for the 60-year-old cleric: denied the protection of his clerical garb, tossed into the general prison population, unprepared to rely on violence to protect himself from further violence from street criminals – we have all seen TV and film representation of the terrors behind prison walls. Is this too harsh for a mild-mannered priest who was only following the orders of his bishop? Is this sentence a reflection of an anti-Catholic bias against we who believe that a bishop is chosen by God to lead the church? Was it not his job as clergy secretary to keep secret the sinful behavior of wayward priests so as to serve the greater good of preserving the good name of Catholicism?
I would argue in rebuttal, that precisely because the courts are required to “serve the greater good” and because the church needs to preserve “the good name of Catholicism,” the penalty is not harsh enough. Three to six years makes the message clear. Without fearsome consequences to those working directly for power-conscious prelates, ecclesiastical ambition and blind loyalty to one’s superiors will interfere with justice. There will always be the temptation to obey men rather than God when one’s career will suffer more from standing up for justice than from meekly serving those in power. This is true for coaches, university administrators and sadly also for chancery officials. In Catholic America, we can be thankful for the members of SNAP for standing courageously against cardinals, archbishops and their minions. Truth was spoken to power, generally at the cost of personal vilification and church orchestrated legal attacks.
While I have sympathy for Monsignor Lynn who will face punishments that will likely test his soul, I also remember that his actions-- or lack thereof -- tortured the souls of innocent children. Eerily, like the Penn State case where coach Joe Paterno (d. January 22, 2012) had passed away before his role was fully disclosed, in Philadelphia, Cardinal Anthony Joseph Bevilacqua (d. January 31, 2012) had also passed away before the sentencing. Meanwhile, Cardinal Bernard Francis Law of Boston where this tale began to unravel is ensconced in Rome, safe from U.S. legal prosecution.
The jail time that Monsignor Lynn will serve helps strip away the shield of loyalty upon which some unfeeling bishops had depended to avoid culpability for questionable actions. Ultimately, I see benefits to the church in general and bishops in particular to have leadership that is transparent in decision-making and evangelical in inspiration.