Catholic Monsignor William Lynn received a sentence slightly shorter than the maximum he faced.

Story highlights

NEW: "I've tried to serve God as best I could," says Monsignor William Lynn

NEW: "You knew full well what was right, but you chose wrong," judge says

NEW: "I still believe that we'll prevail (on appeal)," defense attorney says

Philadelphia CNN  — 

The highest-ranking Catholic Church cleric charged and convicted in the landmark Philadelphia child sexual abuse trial was sentenced to 3 to 6 years in prison Tuesday.

Monsignor William Lynn, 61, was found guilty in June of one count of child endangerment, the first time a U.S. church leader has been convicted of such a charge.

He was given just under the maximum sentence he faced, which was 3½ to 7 years in prison for his conviction on the third-degree felony.

Lynn, who was allowed to make a statement, apologized for any shortcomings.

“I’ve tried to serve God as best I could,” said Lynn, who was not wearing his clerical collar and was escorted by bailiffs to the courtroom. “My best was not good enough.”

The trial marked the first time U.S. prosecutors have charged not just the priests who allegedly committed abuses, but also church leaders for failing to stop them. Lynn is the highest-ranking cleric accused of covering up allegations of molestation and rape against priests by transferring them to unwitting parishes.

“You knew full well what was right, but you chose wrong,” Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina told Lynn during sentencing.

Although Lynn did not sexually abuse any children, he failed to take the “appropriate steps” to remove predator priests from ministry, the judge said. “He has been sentenced for his own actions done knowingly.”

Lynn’s conviction was for not removing defrocked priest, Edward Avery, from active ministry in the 1990s after learning Avery had molested a teen.

Accused priest: ‘I was helping priests and helping victims as best I could’

Days before the trial in March, Avery pleaded guilty to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and conspiracy to endanger the welfare of a child after admitting that he sexually assaulted the 10-year-old altar boy during the 1998-99 school year. Avery, 69, was sentenced to 2½ to 5 years.

The victim, now in his 20s, was in the fifth grade when Avery undressed with him in a small storage room, told him that God loved him, and then engaged in sexual acts with him.

“He told me God loves me, this is what God wants, and it was time for me to become a man,” the witness told jurors April.

The family of Avery’s victim, who testified during the trial, sat packed into rows behind the prosecution.

“The young man has suffered tremendously. The life of their son has been ruined,” said the victim’s attorney and family spokesman, Slade McLaughlin. “They have a sense of relief that justice has been served,”

After Lynn’s defense team argued for leniency from the judge, assistant district attorney Patrick Blessington asked for the maximum sentence of seven years in prison.

“It was horrible. It was despicable what he did over a 14-year-period,” Blessington said. “He doesn’t get mercy, he gets justice.”

The judge’s sentencing decision ended a nearly two-hour hearing that attracted Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams to the standing-room only courtroom.

“I believe this has sent a message. They (church officials) have to take allegations seriously,” Williams said. “Victims have to come first.”

Lynn’s defense attorneys asked the judge for leniency after calling seven character witnesses to the stand, including Lynn’s niece, who wept during her testimony.

“We fought hard and came up short,” said defense attorney Tom Bergstrom. “I still believe that we’ll prevail” on appeal.

Marci Hamilton, a victims rights attorney, said the ruling “empowers prosecutors and shows convictions are possible.”

“The mood of the citizens has changed,” Hamilton said. “They want justice and are no longer willing to turn a blind eye to clerical misdeeds.”

Joelle Casteix, Western Regional the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests Director said in a statement that the sentence sends a powerful message:

“Cover up child sex crimes and you’ll go to jail. Not house arrest. Not community service. Not a fine. You’ll be locked up. It says, loud and clear, that child sex crimes are taken extremely seriously, and will be punished as such,” Casteix said.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia released a statement Tuesday after the sentencing saying that “there is legitimate anger in the broad community toward any incident or enabling of sexual abuse.”

They also said the trial “has been especially difficult for victims, and we profoundly regret their pain.”

But they added: “Fair-minded people will question the severity of the heavy, three to six year sentence imposed on Msgr. Lynn today. We hope that when this punishment is objectively reviewed, it will be adjusted.”

A Philadelphia judge had ordered Lynn to remain in jail until the sentencing despite a request by his legal team that he be placed under house arrest.

Opinion: Catholic church could learn from NCAA

Lynn was found not guilty on a second count of endangerment and on a charge of conspiring to protect a priest accused of abuse.

Lynn’s defense team argued during the trial that their client repeatedly told higher-ups about the alleged abuse and, under strict orders from the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, had no authority to remove priests from the ministry.

The same jury that convicted Lynn was unable to bring a verdict against his co-defendant, the Rev. James Brennan, who was accused of the attempted rape of a 14-year-old.

The Philadelphia district attorney’s office announced Monday it will retry Brennan. He is due in court for a status hearing August 14.

“James Brennan used his position as a priest to prey upon and victimize” a young man, District Attorney Seth Williams said in a written statement. “It is extremely important that Brennan be held accountable for his crime, not just for his victim, but for all victims of sexual abuse.”

Two Philadelphia priests barred amid sexual abuse investigation

Defense attorney William Brennan, who is not related to his client, said he is “disappointed” and “perplexed” by the district attorney’s decision to retry the case against the reverend.

“They took their best shot. Enough is enough,” Brennan said. “Oftentimes we hear about justice for the victims. But what about justice for Father Brennan?”