The crime of endangering the welfare of children does not require direct supervision of a child, only supervision of the child’s welfare, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held in Commonwealth v. Lynn, __ A.3d __ (No. 15 EAP 2014, filed April 27, 2015). This case arose out of a lengthy investigation of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for clergy sex abuse. In 2011 the District Attorney charged William Lynn, former Secretary for Clergy, with two counts of endangering the welfare of children (EWOC) under the 1995 version of the statute, which defined EWOC as follows: “A parent, guardian or other person supervising the welfare of a child under 18 years of age commits an offense if he knowingly endangers the welfare of a child by violating a duty of care, protection or support.” The Commonwealth contended that from 1992 to 2004, Lynn engaged in a pattern of concealment and facilitation of child sexual molestation by abusive priests – conduct which led directly to the abuse of one child, D.G., by Reverend Edward Avery. Lynn sought, unsuccessfully, to quash the charges on the basis that he had “no connection whatsoever” to the children whose welfare he allegedly endangered. The jury returned a verdict of guilty with respect to EWOC as it related to Reverend Avery, which the trial court graded as a third-degree felony because the jury found a “course of conduct” of EWOC.
On appeal to the Superior Court, Lynn argued, inter alia, that he was not within the scope of individuals subject to the EWOC statute because he did not directly supervise children. In support, Lynn cited a 2007 amendment to the EWOC statute that expanded its reach to include individuals acting in an employer or supervisory capacity. See 18 Pa. C.S. §4304(a). Lynn argued that this amendment indicated legislative intent that the prior statute under which he was charged did not encompass him. The Superior Court held that for EWOC criminal liability to attach, a person who is not a parent or guardian must have been engaged in the supervision, or have been responsible for the supervision, of an endangered child. Because there was no evidence that Lynn had any direct supervision over D.G. or any other child put at risk of abuse by Reverend Avery, the Superior Court reversed the conviction. The Commonwealth appealed.
The Supreme Court reversed in an opinion authored by Justice Baer. Focusing on the plain language of the former EWOC statute, and cognizant of its obligation to construe protective juvenile statutes broadly, the majority held that direct supervision of a child was not a prerequisite to criminal liability for supervising the child’s welfare. The majority concluded that the legislature’s amendment of the EWOC statute was irrelevant to the plain meaning of the version under which Lynn was charged. The Court accepted the Commonwealth’s argument that supervision is routinely accomplished through subordinates, and is no less supervisory if it does not involve personal encounters with children, noting that school principals and day care center managers could also be criminally liable for EWOC if they knowingly place sexually abusive employees in proximity to children under their supervision. In this case, the Commonwealth’s evidence established that Lynn was supervising the welfare of D.G., which he endangered by placing Reverend Avery in a position to have access to D.G.
In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Saylor agreed with the Superior Court that Lynn’s duty to protect children from sexually abusive priests must be distinguished from supervision. Chief Justice Saylor opined that the pre-amendment EWOC statute is ambiguous as to whether it was meant to subsume supervisors-of-supervisors such as Lynn. Applying the rule of lenity, Chief Justice Saylor would have resolved the ambiguity in Lynn’s favor.