Former Prison Warden Gets Tough with Church Leaders

By David Bruce
Erie Times-News [Erie PA]
Downloaded September 14, 2003

Newsmakers is a weekly feature that takes a closer look at a local person making headlines

Edward Brennan sees similarities between being a warden and a college professor.

Both are authority figures who might appear to have all the answers, said Brennan, who retired as superintendent of the State Correctional Institution at Albion in 2001 to teach at Mercyhurst College.

"In both cases you may deal with individuals who haven't made great life decisions and may be floundering a bit," Brennan said. "You try to help them, help motivate them. Of course, in prison it's much more difficult to do that."

Besides teaching criminal justice, sociology and related classes at Mercyhurst's North East campus, Brennan serves as the chairman of the college's division of justice and public safety. He oversees the police academy, constable training program and criminal justice department.

Brennan also serves as a eucharistic minister at Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Harborcreek. He has gained attention for speaking out publicly including writing letters to the Erie Times-News criticizing the church's leadership for its handling of the clergy sex scandal.

"My personal opinion is that the problem resides with the hierarchy of the church," Brennan said. "There is a lack of credible leadership. You can see it across the nation."

Q Before we talk about your views on the clergy sex scandal, how did you end up at Mercyhurst North East?

A I had taught part time as an adjunct professor at several colleges in the commonwealth over the past 25 years. It was something I really enjoyed, a nice diversion from my full-time career. In the corrections business, you don't deal with the nicest part of society. It was refreshing to see students who had bright eyes and were eager to learn. ...

As I prepared to retire, I had some conversations with Dr. (William) Garvey, Mercyhurst president, who has been really supportive of the programs at (SCI) Albion. He mentioned that when or if I retired, he would be interested in having me teach.

QWhat is it like spending time with college students?

A Mercyhurst North East is what I call an opportunity college; it has a junior college atmosphere. We have a lot of older students and younger ones. We have a bunch of former International Paper employees who were laid off (when the Erie plant closed in 2001). Some of them are close to my age, and it makes me wonder what I would do in their position.

I told several of them that I admire them as individuals. They moved from a tragic situation and have really done well.

Q Do you wish you had left the Department of Corrections earlier?

A No, I really enjoyed my career with corrections. It was, in its own way, very rewarding. I was doing a service to the community, the last line of defense, holding individuals who couldn't adjust to society. There is a sense of camaraderie among those of us who worked in a prison.

It's a high pressure kind of a job, though. My blood pressure went down 10 points after I retired and came to Mercyhurst North East. You walk into a (prison) yard with 1,000 inmates and you have no weapons. You're running it with your wits.

I lived on the prison grounds, about 100 yards from my office. It was really a 24-7 job. I'd get calls at all hours of the night, though my staff was excellent. It still is.

Q What role does education play in the prison system?

AMy philosophy is to give inmates educational opportunities. One thing we know for sure is that the more education and training we give inmates and they pursue the less crime they commit in the future. We teach them how to work.

I really liked presiding over the GED graduation ceremonies. The inmates would dress in caps and gowns, and we had guest speakers like (Erie County district attorney) Brad Foulk and (State Sen.) Jane Earll present diplomas.

When Brad came to speak, he said 'I probably locked up half of you guys.' They gave him a standing ovation.

I liked the fact that for some inmates, it was the first time they saw the results of their accomplishments.

Q You have made it clear that you are not happy with the way Erie Catholic Bishop Donald Trautman and other American bishops have responded to the clergy sex scandal. Why speak publicly and send letters to the editor?

A The bishops need to stop covering up this matter, making excuses and saying things like "Catholic priests represent only 1 percent of the total cases of sexual abuse."

If I was in Bishop Trautman's position, I would take responsibility for the problem even if it didn't happen on my watch and make sure it never happened again. I read Bishop Trautman's pastoral letter he wrote (in July) and I thought to myself, 'He still doesn't get it.'

Q You were in contact with an accused pedophile priest during your time as superintendent at SCI Albion. What happened?

A The diocese referred an accused pedophile to us to serve as chaplain, back in 1997 or 1998. We found this out during a background search, and when we approached the diocese, they said "It's up to you whether you accept him, but we're not commenting about it."

You talk about putting a fox in charge of the hen house. ... I was outraged. By all rights he should have been an inmate in the prison, not a chaplain. I talked to the priest. He said he was accused but it was never proven. He added, though, that he went for therapy and was now cured.

He didn't become a chaplain at Albion.

Q Do you ever think about switching faiths?

A No. My faith is based on my belief in God and my thankfulness for all the good things that have happened in my life. (The clergy sex scandal) has affected my opinion of the (Catholic) church, but the church is made up of people and people are flawed.

Switching faiths would be like throwing the baby out with the bath water. I'm comfortable with being Catholic. I can go to church in Montana and know that Mass will be consistent. The scandal is a people problem, not a church problem.

DAVID BRUCE can be reached at 870-1736 or by e-mail.


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