Apart from the legal merits of the verdict, it strips away another layer of unjustified immunity which the Catholic Church and other religious groups have used to claim preferential treatment.
The outcome for Lynn was mild compared to what it might have been — discarding a conspiracy charge and one of the child endangerment counts — but it sent another signal that the church could no longer brazenly declare its business as off-limits to common law.
Any jury in a monster case against priests in heavily Catholic Philadelphia could be expected to feel that pressure to defer to the habits and traditions of church authorities, to allow them an exception. From the length and results of their deliberations, it’s clear they struggled mightily. They may well have been influenced by the monsignor’s plea that he was a relatively powerless subordinate. The evidence strongly suggests responsibility, but at what level — and did jurors feel more moderate toward Lynn because they believed the ones even more culpable had evaded the criminal system?
The verdict could have pinned a lot more guilt on Lynn, but at the very least it served notice that the church is vulnerable like any other sector of society. As the jury was ensconsed this week, the new archbishop, Charles J. Chaput, was leading the Catholic bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” effort to change the subject to birth control protection.
“Unless we work hard to keep our religious liberty,” he asserted before the Catholic Press Association, “we are going to lose it.” Without maintaining its own integrity, it is already lost.
Kenneth Briggs is an adjunct professor at Lafayette College and a former religion writer for the New York Times.