Jurors Hear about Perverted Passion Play

By Ralph Cipriano
Philadelphia Priest Abuse Trial Blog
April 17, 2012

Jurors in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sex abuse trial Tuesday were told about a perverted passion play where teenage boys who played Jesus were stripped naked, dressed in a loincloth, and then whipped with leather straps until they had cuts, bruises and welts on their bodies.

It was a new low of depravity as the sex abuse trial continued into its fourth week of testimony.

Detective James Dougherty of the District Attorney's Special Victims Unit dispassionately read confidential records from the archdiocese's secret archive files into the court record.

The files told the story of how Father Thomas J. Smith would personally dress one 12-year-old boy who played Jesus. The priest would bring the boy into the sacristy, lock the door behind him, and have the boy strip naked. Then the priest would kneel down in front of the naked boy, and pin a loincloth on him. Sometimes, Father Smith was clumsy and would "poke him with pins."

"This was done before every performance," the records said. The priest took at least 20 minutes to dress the boy in a loincloth and a cloak. The boy "felt uncomfortable" and "wanted to quit, but his parents wouldn't allow it." Father Smith had two other boys who played Jesus strip for the passion play. He also encouraged other boys in the play to whip "Jesus" with leather straps, to the point where the boy was bruised and felt pain.

The three boys weren't the only victims. The archdiocese review board found that the perverted passion play "occurred in multiple parish assignments with a number of different boys over a number of years."

The story came out in 2002, when one of the boys who had played Jesus contacted the Delaware County District Attorney and the archdiocese. The victim was identified as 29-year-old Shawn Magee. He wrote the archdiocese to say that back in 1986 when he was 12 years old, he thought it would be an honor to play Jesus in the parish passion play. Instead, he was abused by Father Smith.

Magee wrote that he was a recovering alcoholic. He didn't want money, and he didn't want to file a lawsuit. "I just want to tell my story and put it in God's hands," the victim told archdiocese officials. He also notified the archdiocese that Father Smith had taken boys into a hot tub at an athletic club, and told the boys falsely that the club's rules were that they had to strip naked to be in the hot tub. He said he knew of as many as 16 other boys who had been allegedly abused by Father Smith.

In response, the secret archive files showed that the archdiocese launched an investigation, but when they got through investigating, they didn't think they had a pedophile priest on their hands. Msgr. William J. Lynn, however, did meet with Father Smith and confront him with the victim's claims.

Father Smith admitted to Lynn that what he had done was "stupid." He said he did have the boys strip, but said they would only "be naked for a split second." The priest said he required the boys in the passion play to strip "for authenticity." The priest also copped to being naked in the hot tub with naked boys. Father Smith admitted both the passion play strippings and hot tub caper were "inappropriate" behavior for a priest.

"Maybe his thing was to look and not touch," Msgr. William J. Lynn ruminated in the secret archive files. It may be inappropriate behavior, the monsignor concluded, but "it does not appear to be sexual abuse," because what Father Smith did was "not for sexual gratification."

The archdiocese learned of other victims who had played Jesus in the passion play. One victim was the teenage son of former state Rep. Stephen F. Freind. "His son had the same experience" in 1983, the secret archive files said.

In an interview yesterday, Freind acknowledged that his son had been one of the victims. As a self-described "old-fashioned Catholic," Freind said he was "completely disgusted and disillusioned" by what is going on in his church. He said that some Catholic priests involved in the current scandals forgot to do the right thing. "The right thing is never lying and never covering up," Freind said, "and never putting those children at risk again."

Msgr. Lynn recommended that Father Smith's ministry be limited, and that he not be allowed to work around children or teenagers. "It's obvious that Father Smith likes to look," Lynn was quoted as saying in the secret files. Lynn encouraged Father Smith to resign his job at the time of regional vicar of Delaware County.

Father Smith agreed, saying he need a leave of absence to look after his ailing parents. But he also wanted to take some courses, so he wrote to Cardinal Bevilacqua, asking for an "educational sabbatical," rather than divulging the real reasons for his departure. Father Smith closed his letter to the cardinal by writing, "Sincerely yours in Christ." The cardinal granted the request in 2003

During his sabbatical, the priest kept his archdiocese residence, salary and benefits. The archdiocese also paid for his courses, and the priest's ongoing counseling.

But in 2004, after receiving new reports from more alleged victims, the archdiocese review board reversed itself, and declared that the victims' accounts from the passion play were now credible, and did constitute sex abuse. The priest was granted a leave of absence, and was retired from active ministry.

On cross examination, Jeff Lindy, a defense lawyer representing Msgr. Lynn, stressed that the archdiocese didn't formally know about the perverted passion play until 2002. Within two weeks, Lindy said, Lynn had Father Smith in his office.

"Within two weeks, Msgr. Lynn got, what your term would be a confession from Father Smith," Lindy asked Detective Dougherty, his voice rising.

"It would appear to be a partial confession," Dougherty replied.

On redirect, Ast. District Attorney Patrick Blessington brought up that the victim of the passion play had informed Msgr. Lynn about as many as 16 other alleged victims of Father Smith. Is there any evidence in the secret archive files, Blessington wanted to know, that Msgr. Lynn did anything to investigate those other alleged victims?

"Not that I've seen to this date," the detective said.

Should the alleged other victims have been investigated?

"One would hope so, sir," the detective said.

Lindy erupted. He asked the detective "a simple yes or no question," whether Lynn had been trained like Dougherty as a former homicide detective to investigate crime, but Blessington objected, and the judge sustained it.

Lindy protested that Dougherty should be allowed to answer the question because, "He's a tough guy." But when Lindy tried again, the district attorney objected again, and the judge sustained it again.

So Lindy sat down in frustration, but not before making his point.


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