An appeals court has overturned the landmark conviction of Monsignor William Lynn, the first person in the Catholic hierarchy to be convicted in the United States for mishandling allegations of clergy sex abuse.

Last year, a Philadelphia jury found Lynn guilty of child endangerment. While Lynn was the secretary for clergy for the Philadelphia Archdiocese, prosecutors alleged that he responded to complaints about child molesters by transferring them to other parishes, instead of removing them.

The case centered around one priest who abused a boy after being reassigned by Lynn.

On Thursday, a Pennsylvania Superior Court panel released its ruling that the child endangerment law at the time did not apply to supervisors such as Lynn. Lynn's lawyer, Thomas Bergstrom, said he has been making that point for some time.

"The statute was meant to cover a parent, a guardian or another person who was in direct supervision of a child, and that's not Monsignor Lynn," he said. "He didn't even know this young man."

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said Lynn and his lawyers appear to be exploiting a technicality in the law. He said the ruling is disappointing because one of the best ways to stop child molesters is to punish the people who enable them.

"There are certainly plenty of professionals who believe that child molesters are sick, compulsive, driven men who cannot control themselves, and so no threat punishment will deter them," he said. "However, no one really maintains that men and women who employ child molesters are sick, twisted, driven individuals who are ruled by deeply rooted compulsions."

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said he likely will appeal the ruling.

"I am disappointed and strongly disagree with the court's decision," he said in a statement.

A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia said the ruling does not change its duty to ensure children's safety and help survivors of abuse. 

Lynn was ordered released from prison Thursday. He has served 18 months of a three-to-six year term.