This guest blog comes courtesy of the Rev. Michael P. Orsi, research fellow in law and religion at the Ave Maria School of Law:
Monsignor William J. Lynn, former Secretary for the Clergy, in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, has been sentenced to 3-6 years in prison for child endangerment. A jury found him culpable in reassigning predator priests to unwary parishes.
Bill Lynn was my classmate. I have known him for forty years. He is a good man and a good priest. Unfortunately, he was also a good soldier who did what Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, his archbishop at the time, told him to do.
This essay is not designed to exonerate Monsignor Lynn. It is however an attempt to help people understand why he acted as he did. It is also a proposal to prevent such behavior from happening again.
Bill is part of a hierarchical church that imposes obedience to the diocesan bishop on Her priests. It encourages priests to be team players. And it forces priests to seek affirmation and support within a diocesan structure. This system does not encourage challenges. As the old seminary saying goes, “You keep the rules and the rules will keep you.”
From the moment of ordination a priest becomes intimately bound to his bishop and the presbyterate of his diocese. The bishop has complete control over a priest’s life, materially – for sure, and often times spiritually on account of the decisions he makes in the priest’s regard. Because of this priests look to their bishop as a father figure. They want to believe that his decisions are wise.
A great sign of success for a priest is to be invited to join the Diocesan Curia, the bishop’s circle of collaborators in the administration of the diocese. The position of Vicar for the Clergy, the post held by Lynn from1990 – 2002, is just such a sinecure.
In this elite environment there are few priests who are willing to oppose the bishop’s wishes for fear of falling out of favor.
Being a team player is important for any organization. It is a vital part of the clerical lifestyle. Camaraderie is strongly impressed upon priests. We often refer to our fellow priests as our brothers. The fact is that we do have a real dependency on each other since we do not have an immediate family of our own. Priests rely on each other for acceptance, for sharing the work load and even living arrangements. If a priest deems any of these to be inadequate or unjust he may be, rightly or wrongly, labeled a malcontent or a problem. This perception can follow him throughout his priesthood.
Very often a priest, may have some very serious concerns, yet simply “Go Along to Get Along.”
Because a priest’s circle is often limited to fellow priests his vision may also be limited. Therefore, if there is a problem, in certain cases, the advice he receives from them does not always come from fresh or unbiased eyes. Defense mechanisms can also easily set in; denial, rationalization and silence for self preservation. As one wizened old priest said about speaking up or speaking out, “Who needs the aggravation?”
Monsignor Lynn is not innocent. He failed in his duty of care to children. His punishment is harsh, and I pray that it will be reduced. It serves, however, as a necessary message to bishops throughout the country that the system needs fixing.
Therefore, I make the following suggestions:
First, that Diocesan Pastoral Councils be given greater prominence in dioceses. This group is comprised of clergy, consecrated religious and laity elected by the people of the diocese.
Second, that Diocesan Boards of Consulters (BOC), a canonically established group of priests who advise the bishop on administrative matters, include men and women religious and laity. Presently the BOC is comprised of a representation of priests chosen by the bishop who are elected by their peers to serve on the Diocesan Presbyteral Council (Priests’ Council).
Third, that the priests and lay people of the diocese have recourse to the BOC in areas of concern.
Fourth, that all administrative positions in a diocese should be filled with the advice of the BOC.
Fifth, that diocesan and ecclesiastical honors, clerical or lay, should also be recommended and approved by the BOC.
Sixth, that lower clergy and laity have a greater role in the selection of diocesan bishops. This will produce a leadership more open to dialog and criticism.
These recommendations will allow a diversity of input regarding diocesan matters; encourage shared responsibility in decision making, and foster a more mature bishop - priest relationship. Priests will feel freer to raise concerns with this model of administration and will no longer be able to use the excuse “I was only a functionary.”
I believe this type of system will create an adult culture of mutual respect. It can restore confidence in the episcopacy, help protect priests, and strengthen the church.