PHILADELPHIA — The first U.S. church official convicted of covering up sex-abuse claims against Roman Catholic priests was sentenced Tuesday to three to six years in prison by a judge who said he "enabled monsters in clerical garb ... to destroy the souls of children."

Monsignor William Lynn, the former secretary for clergy at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, "helped many but also failed many" in his 36-year church career, Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina said.

Lynn, who handled priest assignments and child sexual assault complaints from 1992 to 2004, was convicted last month of felony child endangerment for his oversight of now-defrocked priest Edward Avery. Avery is serving a 2 1/2- to five-year sentence for sexually assaulting an altar boy in church in 1999.

"I did not intend any harm to come to (the boy). The fact is, my best was not good enough to stop that harm," Lynn said. "I am a parish priest. I should have stayed (one)."

Lynn's lawyers had sought probation, arguing that few Pennsylvanians serve long prison terms for child endangerment and that their client shouldn't serve more time than abusers like Avery. They plan to appeal the landmark conviction and seek bail while the lengthy appeals process unfolds.

The judge said Lynn enabled "monsters in clerical garb ... to destroy the souls of children, to whom you turned a hard heart."

She believed he initially hoped to address the sex abuse problem and perhaps drafted a 1994 list of accused priests for that reason. But when Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua instead had the list destroyed, Lynn chose to remain in the job and obey his bishop – by keeping quiet – as children suffered, she said.

"You knew full well what was right, Monsignor Lynn, but you chose wrong," Sarmina said.

The archdiocese called the sentence severe and hoped it would be "adjusted" on appeal.

"Fair-minded people will question the severity of the heavy, three- to six-year sentence imposed on Monsignor Lynn today," the statement said.

The 61-year-old Lynn was acquitted last month of conspiracy and a second endangerment count involving a co-defendant, the Rev. James Brennan. The jury deadlocked on a 1996 abuse charge against Brennan, and prosecutors said Monday that they would retry him.

In 1992, a doctor told Lynn's office that Avery had abused him years earlier. Lynn met with the doctor and sent Avery for treatment – but the church-run facility diagnosed an alcohol problem, not a sexual disorder. Avery was returned to ministry and sent to live at the northeast Philadelphia parish where the altar boy was assaulted in 1999.

Prosecutors who spent a decade investigating sex abuse complaints kept in secret files at the archdiocese and issued two damning grand jury reports argue that Lynn and unindicted co-conspirators in the church hierarchy kept children in danger and the public in the dark.

"He locked away in a vault the names of pedophile priests. He locked in a vault the names of men that he knew had abused children. He now will be locked away for a fraction of the time he kept that secret vault," District Attorney Seth Williams said of Lynn.

Defense lawyers have long argued that the state's child endangerment statute, revised in 2007 to include those who supervise abusers, should not apply to Lynn since he left office in 2004. They also insist he did more than anyone at the archdiocese to meet with victims, get pedophile priests into treatment and send recommendations to the cardinal.

"He did the best he could under absolute awful circumstances," lawyer Thomas Bergstrom said after the hearing. "If he wanted to play the game, he wouldn't have met with (victims) at all."

Lynn was the first U.S. church official convicted for his handling of abuse claims in the sex scandal that's rocked the Catholic church for more than a decade. But he might not be the last.

Bishop Robert Finn and the Kansas City diocese face a misdemeanor charge of failing to report suspected child sexual abuse. Both Finn and the diocese have pleaded not guilty and are set to go on trial next month.

"Protecting children has to be first and foremost," said Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "We're extremely grateful that the judge and the prosecutors did not give Monsignor Lynn special treatment because of his priestly status."

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Associated Press writer JoAnn Loviglio in Philadelphia contributed to this report.

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