Despite History, Two Continue to Serve
Two priests engaged in inappropriate behavior with children, were transferred, and remain in ministry, the grand jury found.

By Jim Remsen
Faith Life Editor
Philadelphia Inquirer
September 23, 2005

In the Philadelphia grand jury's long catalog of priests accused of sexual abuse, two names stand out: the Revs. John H. Mulholland and Robert L. Brennan.

Unlike the many others - dead, defrocked, or suspended - Mulholland, 66, and Brennan, 67, remain in public ministry. Both are chaplains at retirement homes in the archdiocese, celebrating Masses and ministering to residents.

According to the report, released Wednesday, church officials were first told in 1968 about Mulholland's "sadomasochistic practices with boys" - which involved talk of bondage and eating human waste - and took no action.

Similarly, repeated complaints about Brennan's "inappropriate or suspicious behavior" with more than 20 boys dating to 1988 prompted a round of therapy - but he was then sent back to parish work with no warning to parishioners, the grand jury found.

Although the U.S. Catholic Church has vowed to remove any known abuser from active ministry as part of its 2002 child-protection charter, archdiocese officials maintain that these two priests are not clear-cut abusers under the special set of church laws known as the Essential Norms.

The archdiocese's sex-abuse review board took up Mulholland's case in 2004 and recommended no action. It found that a letter Mulholland wrote to a boy in his parish was "quite disturbing in its language regarding issues of power, descriptions of human excrement and use of restraint," but did not "fall under the definition of sexual abuse as contained in the Essential Norms."

The review board also found that Brennan's actions did not violate the Essential Norms, even though the church's former secretary for clergy, Msgr. William J. Lynn, told him in a June 2004 letter: "There is convincing evidence that over a number of years you have engaged in behavior that is entirely inappropriate and unacceptable for a priest."

Later that month, Brennan was given a restricted ministry as chaplain at Camilla Hall, a retirement home for nuns on the campus of Immaculata College. Yesterday, a worker at the home said Brennan was not available for comment and referred all questions to the archdiocese.

In June 2002, Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, the archbishop of Philadelphia at the time, named Mulholland chaplain of Immaculate Mary Nursing Home, a 296-bed facility in Northeast Philadelphia.

An official there said he was not available for comment yesterday and referred calls to the archdiocese.

Pressed about the two cases in an interview yesterday, Cardinal Justin Rigali, Philadelphia's archbishop, said: "I can't get into specifics" about individual priests.

At a news conference Wednesday, Rigali said no further action would be taken against Mulholland because "it was not sexual abuse."

Church lawyer C. Clark Hodgson Jr. on Wednesday contended that Mulholland was barred from contact with children. At the same time, Hodgson said the matter involved "a letter" and took place decades ago. He called the grand jury account "wildly distorted."

The archdiocese's own Standards of Ministerial Behavior and Boundaries, however, defines sexual abuse as "contacts or interactions between a child and an adult where the child is being exploited or used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult."

In an interview yesterday, the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer and victim advocate, disagreed with the review board's handling of the two priests' cases.

Though the board said the priests' actions did not violate the Essential Norms' understanding of sex abuse, Doyle noted that the norms define the term "only broadly, as offenses against the Sixth Commandment" forbidding adultery.

"I would say theirs is an extreme interpretation," Doyle said.

The grand jury's lengthy report, which devotes 26 pages to the two priests, is based on testimony from victims, experts and others, and voluminous church records.

The complaints against Mulholland began in August 1968, it said, when a mother in St. Joseph's Church in Warrington showed the pastor two letters to her son from Mulholland, who had recently served there. They included images of painful bondage and a plea: "prepare to break me on vacation."

At the time, the boy was on a two-week trip with Mulholland. According to the grand jury, the letters mentioned several other parish boys "and suggested that they also participated in sadomasochistic rituals" with Mulholland.

Even though the boy later admitted "a relationship with Father," the archdiocese's vicar general, Gerald V. McDevitt, told Mulholland that the church's response "would depend on the attitude the mother of the boy took and how far she would want to follow up the matter," the report said.

The priest was shipped to St. Anastasia in Newtown Square, where new reports of "inappropriate sexual contact" were made to the archdiocese. One report was that Mulholland had "strung up" one boy and was "piercing him or at least jabbing him with some instrument all over his body."

Nothing was done, and parents were not warned, according to the report. Over the next two decades, he was assigned to Blessed Virgin Mary in Darby, the former Holy Child in North Philadelphia, Stella Maris in South Philadelphia, St. Francis of Assisi in Norristown, and, finally, Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Levittown.

The review board cleared Mulholland of abuse in 2004 despite concluding that his letter "indicates that he is a disturbed individual in need of mental health intervention."

The first complaints about Brennan's "extreme" interest in boys, meanwhile, came in late 1988, when he was the new pastor at St. Ignatius parish in Yardley.

For instance, the report says, one boy told church officials that Brennan "regularly held him tightly on his lap, so that the boy could not escape, and rubbed his 'belly' and touched his 'butt.' "

The boy said Brennan did the same with other youths as well.

According to the grand jury, the archdiocese's response to the reports, "and far more explicit ones, was to measure whether the reports would lead to scandal, not to take action against Fr. Brennan."

Bevilacqua met with the complaining boy's parents and offered to pay for counseling for their son, the report says. Still, it says, "there is no evidence in the [church's] Secret Archives file or elsewhere that he did anything about the boys whose parents were unaware of the harm Fr. Brennan was doing to their children."

Since that time, according to the report, the church was told of "inappropriate or suspicious behavior" involving more than 20 boys at four parishes: St. Ignatius, St. Eleanor in Collegeville, St. Mary in Schwenksville, and Resurrection of Our Lord in Northeast Philadelphia. Along the way, it says, Brennan also underwent four rounds of evaluation or treatment.

"Depending on the level of scandal threatened by various incidents, Cardinal Bevilacqua either transferred Fr. Brennan to another parish with unsuspecting families or ignored the reports and left the priest in the parish with his current victims," the report says.

Grand jury lawyers grilled Bevilacqua about the Brennan file. According to the report, the cardinal testified that he consider "Brennan's problems as innocuous-sounding 'boundary issues,' which 'he has to take up with... himself.' "

Contact Faith Life editor Jim Remsen at 215-854-5621 or Inquirer staff writer David O'Reilly contributed to this article.


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