On Thursday, after the prosecution closed their case, Judge Sarmina swiftly dismissed the conspiracy charges against Monsignor Lynn and Father Brennan. Although the move caught some observers by surprise, it was likely not a surprise to the prosecutors. To prove a criminal conspiracy, the Commonwealth has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants had a “shared criminal intent,” defined by Pennsylvania law as “the common understanding that a particular criminal objective is to be accomplished.” Commonwealth v. Lambert, 795 A.2d 1010 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2002). Whatever Monsignor Lynn’s crime was, the evidence did not show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he intended for children to be molested. Thus, the conspiracy charge was plainly difficult to prove from the onset, and the dismissal is not surprising given the actual evidence presented.
Which brings us to the core question of this case: What was Monsignor Lynn’s intent?
For centuries, the English common law, and subsequently the American common law, has required that criminal convictions include proof of two separate elements: the mens rea (the guilty mind) and the actus reus (the guilty act). In Lynn’s case, he is charged with endangering the welfare of children, and I don’t think anyone can genuinely dispute that Monsignor Lynn’s actions in fact endangered the welfare of children within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s parishes and schools. There is no denying that, as of at least February 18, 1994, when Lynn drew up the list of 35 sexually abusive priests, Lynn’s acts — such as his involvement in transferring priests around once allegations were made — and his inactions — such as his failure to ever report any of them to the police — allowed abusive clergy to keep preying on children in the community. But it is a fundamental premise of our criminal law that the magnitude of the damage caused is not by itself enough to prove that a crime occurred, the prosecution must also prove he had the mens rea for the crime.
Proving mens rea is inherently difficult; “for who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man’s spirit within him?” 1 Corinthians 2:11. It is only on television that defendants suddenly concede at trial their own guilt and malicious intent. In real courtrooms, defendants never confess on the stand, and they also typically have not left behind “smoking gun” emails or letters outlining their wicked plans. Mens rea is thus typically proven through circumstantial evidence, and that’s why the prosecution put on the case they did, which at many times looked more like an indictment of the Catholic Church itself than of Lynn personally.