Discuss as:

Pa. court reverses conviction of church official in sex abuse case

Tim Shaffer / Reuters

Monsignor William Lynn walks to the courthouse as the jury deliberates on his sexual abuse trial in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in this June 20, 2012 file photo.

A Roman Catholic church official who has been jailed for more than a year for his handling of priest sex-abuse complaints had his conviction reversed and was ordered released Thursday. 

In dismissing the landmark criminal case, a three-judge Superior Court panel unanimously rejected prosecutors' arguments that Monsignor William Lynn, the first U.S. church official ever charged or convicted for the handling of clergy-abuse complaints, supervised the welfare of any particular child. 

"He's been in prison 18 months for a crime he didn't commit and couldn't commit under the law," said his attorney, Thomas Bergstrom. "It's incredible what happened to this man." 

Lynn, 62, is serving a three- to six-year prison sentence after his child-endangerment conviction last year. His lawyers will try to get him released as early as Thursday from the state prison in Waymart. 

Prosecutors had argued at trial that Lynn reassigned predators to new parishes in Philadelphia while he was the archdiocese's secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004. 

Lynn's conviction stems from the case of one priest, Edward Avery, found to have abused a child in 1998 after such a transfer. 

Lynn's attorneys have long contended the state's child-endangerment law at the time applied only to parents and caregivers, not supervisors like Lynn. Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina rejected their argument and allowed the case to move forward, but the Superior Court panel reversed her decision. 

Prosecutors could ask the full Superior Court to rehear the case. 

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said he strongly disagreed with the decision. 

"While we are deciding what our next course of action will be, we most likely will be appealing," he said. 

Lynn's supporters believe he was made a scapegoat for the church's sins, including two cardinals who were never charged. After Lynn's trial, Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of a misdemeanor for failing to report a priest with child pornography.