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John McKiggan Q.C.
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What Does Monsignor Lynn’s Conviction Mean for the Catholic Church?


On Friday, June 22, 2012, Monsignor William Lynn was convicted by a jury on charges of criminal endangerment. The case marks the first time that any official within the Catholic Church has been held criminally responsible for sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

Landmark Decision

I don’t believe the importance of this conviction can be overstated. Every province in Canada and every state in the United States have laws that require persons in authority to report suspected cases of child abuse. The website BishopAccountability.org has a huge database of American priests who have been publicly accused of sexual abuse.

But until last week, not a single catholic official in charge of any of these priests have ever faced charges about their knowledge or complicity in failing to report these priests to civilian authorities.

Civil lawsuits by priest-abuse victims have uncovered, time and time again, evidence that persons in authority within the Church knew about abuse by priests and failed to report the abuse, or worse, moved the priests from parish to parish allowing them to continue their predatory acts.

Not a single official within the Catholic Church had ever been held accountable for this appalling lack of oversight.

Just Following Orders

One of the more disturbing aspects of the evidence in the Lynn trial, although not particularly surprising to those of us who have been representing victims of childhood abuse for many years, was the testimony that Lynn was ordered to destroy records pertaining to abuse allegations against priests by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua.

In other words, Lynn’s defense was that he was just following the orders of his Cardinal.

Search for Truth or Whitewash?

Last year The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a report prepared by the John Jay College of Criminology. The report: “The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010” was supposed to shed some light on the reasons behind the avalanche of abuse claims the Church is facing in the United States.

Unfortunately the report was more of a public relations exercise than a search for truth. The Jay report identified what the authors referred to as “egregious” failures by diocesan leaders to take responsibility for priest sexual abuse and “concerted efforts” to prevent sexual abuse accusations against priests from being reported to the police.

Yet the Jay report completely ignored the question of what role the hierarchy of the Catholic Church played in the priest abuse crisis. For more information, take a look at The Catholic Church and Sexual Abuse: Is the church’s response real action — or window dressing?

The Church’s Rule Book

The Code of Canon Law is the fundamental legal document of the Roman Catholic Church. It codifies the rules, procedures, duties and obligations of the Catholic Church and it’s members.

The Code requires the Church to conduct an internal investigation of any complaints against priests.

The relevant provisions of the Code of Canon Law (1983), are:

  • Canon 1717(1) Whenever the Ordinary receives information, which has at least the semblance of truth, about an offence, he is to inquire carefully, either personally or through some suitable person, about the facts and circumstances, and about the imputability of the offence, unless this inquiry would appear to be entirely superfluous.
  • Canon 1719 The acts of the investigation, the decrees of the Ordinary by which the investigation was opened and closed, and all those matters which preceded the investigation, are to be kept in the secret curial archive, unless they are necessary for the penal process.
  • Canon 489 (1) In the diocesan curia there is also to be a secret archive, or at least in the ordinary archive there is to be a safe or cabinet, which is securely closed and bolted and which cannot be removed. In this archive documents which are to be kept under secrecy are to be most carefully guarded. (2) Each year documents of criminal cases concerning moral matters are to be destroyed whenever the guilty parties have died, or ten years have elapsed since the condemnatory sentence concluded the affair. A short summary of the facts is to be kept, together with the text of the definitive judgment.
  • Canon 490 Only the Bishop is to have the key of the secret archive.

The Code of Canon Law, the fundamental legal document governing the rules and procedures of the Catholic Church, establishes a process for investigating, documenting and recording acts of misconduct by priests.

By it’s own internal laws, the catholic church must keep a record of all investigations conducted regarding sexual abuse by priests. The information contained in the “secret archive” in every diocese in Canada and the United States would be the starting point for any criminal investigation into the knowlege of church officials regarding sexual abuse of minors.


In Doe v. Bennett Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Dioceses are legally responsible for sexual abuse by priests because of the power and authority that priests hold – a power and authority created by the Church and demanded of its parishioners.

In Doe v. Bennett the Court said this about that relationship:

“The relationship between the bishop and the priest in the Diocese is not only spiritual but temporal.

First, the Bishop provided Bennett with the opportunity to abuse his power.

Second, Bennett’s wrongful acts were strongly related to the psychological intimacy inherent in his role as priest.

Third, the Bishop conferred an enormous degree of power on Bennett relative to his victims”

It is clear officials within the Catholic Church have a great deal of power. How they decide to use that power is something that they need to be held accountable for.


It takes a great deal of courage for abuse survivors to come forward and lay criminal charges. History has shown when one survivor comes forward and lays charges, police inevitably find more victims as survivors, who thought they were the only one to have experienced the abuse, find the courage to come forward and disclose what happened to them.

In the Lynn prosecution it also took a great deal of courage for the prosecutors in this case to proceed with criminal charges against a respected and powerful member of the Catholic Church. Will the results of this prosecution give authorities in other jurisdictions where priests have been convicted of sexual abuse the courage to investigate what, if any, role authorities in the church played in failing to report abuse by priests.

I have asked the question before: Mounting evidence of Catholic conspiracy to cover up sexual abuse by priests?

One becomes many

In many cases police find a single initial complaint leads to dozens of victims abused over many years. Will the same thing happen now with investigations into the knowledge of church officials?

Lynn’s conviction means when priests are convicted of sexual abuse, police should consider whether persons in authority aided and abetted the abuse by allowing predatory priests to be moved from parish to parish in order to avoid repercussions for their actions.

A Lesson from Boy Scouts Canada?

Perhaps the Catholic Church needs to take a lesson from Boy Scouts Canada. Scouts Canada recently acknowledged that they had received hundreds complaints about potentially sexually abusive scout leaders. They hired KPMG to conduct an arms-length audit of their files.

Today Scouts Canada announced that they were turning over their files pertaining to suspected cases of child abuse to the police.

Officials in the Catholic Church would be well advised to consider taking similar steps in order to meet their obligations under the law as well as their moral obligations to the children who are and were part of their flock.


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  1. JL says:
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    Really? You’re a lawyer? Well, you should thank me for correcting you. The correct usage is: The significance cannot be overstated. If you write, as you did, that the significance cannot be understated, then you are saying it is a trivial matter. That’s the way it is, bud. And you write that bishop-accountability has a list of nearly 100 accused priests. Really? Why don’t you take another look because I think it is closer to several thousand, or 10,000. Then you should correct your work.

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    Thanks for pointing out my grammatical and numerical errors.

    The Jay report referred to allegations against more than 4000 priests. But the report doesn’t indicate the source for that figure. Recent updates put the figure at more than 5000.

    I have emailed Kathy Shaw, who curates Bishopaccountability.org to see if she can give the exact number of priests in their database.

    UPDATE: Kathy tells me their database has between 3,700 and 3,800 names of accused priests.

  3. JeannieGuzman says:
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    Why did the John Jay Report not look at the responsibility of the Hierarchy in the Priest Pedophilia Scandal? There is a very simple and reasonable answer: Because the bishops PAID the John Jay Commission for the Report! Wake up! When the bishops are paying millions of dollars for a report, are they going to let those examining the reasons for the Scandal pin the blame on them? Not Likely!!!!!

  4. JeannieGuzman says:
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    Thanks John for publishing this observation, even though there were a few mistakes, at least you were man enough to admit them. I appreciate the fact that you are confirming many things that I have said all along. I always knew that Canada was watching the outcome of the Lynn trial, because our legal systems are similar in many respects, and the people of Canada are about as sick of their Church Hierarchy for covering up the deeds of Pedophile Priests as we are in the States. Hopefully, Lynn’s conviction will spawn similar trials across the USA and Canada, and I am particularly praying that Dr. Sean Brady, the Primate of ALL Ireland, will be the next one on the witness stand to defend his misjudgments! This conviction of Lynn’s should send ripples through the judicial systems of every English-speaking country. The sooner, the better!

  5. Anonymous says:
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    Thanks for your comment Jeannie.

    There are many people who need to be held to account for their actions. It will be interesting to see if police/prosecutors in other jurisdictions now begin to investigate “who knew what” when priests are convicted of sexual abuse of children.

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    Something that I appreciate the most about John’s article is that he has cited the Canon Laws which bishops, archbishops and cardinals use to defend their actions, regarding the Church’s “Secret Archives!” The bishops can hardly deny their culpability, when it is clearly evidenced that their own Canon Laws condemn their actions! Now, I have another credible resource to use, when blogging. Thanks a million!!!!!! Jeannie