Priest Seeks Spiritual Highs; Winds up Singing White Christmas to Chickens

By Ralph Cipriano
Philadelphia Priest Abuse Trial Blog
May 8, 2012

Father James J. Brennan dreamed of becoming a Trappist monk. He thought the monastic life would bring him closer to God as he meditated and prayed in solitude for hours on end.

But after he joined the Trappists in 2000, Father Brennan found the reality of the monastic life was far different then he had imagined. He was getting up at 3 a.m. to feed the chickens on the monks' organic farm. The priest who was also a singer who used to conduct church choirs was reduced to serenading hens to the tune of White Christmas.

"I think too much of me is being wasted on chickens," he wrote Msgr. William J. Lynn in 2001, asking to come back to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

On Tuesday at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sex abuse trial, the prosecution had Detective James Dougherty spend several hours reading into the court record more than 60 formerly confidential records from Father Brennan's personnel files and the archdiocese's secret archive files.

Father Brennan is on trial for conspiracy to endanger the welfare of children, endangering the welfare of a child, and the attempted rape of a 14-year-old. Detective Dougherty was on the witness stand most of the day. It was a curious exercise. There was talk of Father Brennan being abused as a child. There was a complaint from a nun that Father Brennan threw noisy parties in his rectory room. Another complaint was about Father Brennan having male roommates living at the rectory, without permission, one of whom supposedly was his brother, and another was either a cousin or a nephew. When he returned from a leave of absence, Father Brennan compared himself to the Prodigal Son, but there were no confessions about abusing minors.

Instead, the priest's letters to Lynn and Cardinal Bevilacqua, and notes from his private meetings with the monsignor and cardinal told a story about a priest in search of spiritual highs, who at different turns in his ramblings, came off as immature, profound and downright goofy.

Father Brennan was like your kooky cousin or uncle, definitely a guy who marched to his own drummer as he hopped from one assignment to another, always thinking the spiritual grass was greener over in the next yard. A guy who talked over every step of his spiritual life with his therapist, his spiritual advisor, the abbot from the Trappist monastery, and anybody else he ran into. After a while, it sounded like naval gazing.

But the priest isn't on trial for being weird. He's accused of attempted rape, conspiracy, and endangering the welfare of a child. What the reading of these records did to help convict him on those charges was not readily apparent.

The prosecution, in the seventh week of presenting its case, appears to be playing the equivalent of a prevent defense. They are not taking many chances as they attempt to wind up their case in the next week or two. The strategy of playing it safe includes sticking to records, and evidence that is difficult to cross-examine, unlike, say, putting a witness on the stand who may be a juicy target for defense lawyers.

Consider last week, when Detective Joe Walsh spent several hours reading into the record the personnel records and secret archive files regarding Father Nicholas V. Cudemo, described to a grand jury by the late Msgr. James E. Molloy, former vicar for administration, as "one of the sickest individuals I ever knew."

Yet that quote was never read to the jury. Instead, while Walsh read the records, one of the courtroom spectators was a woman identified in the 2005 grand jury report as "Ruth." According to the grand jury report, Father Cudemo began having sex with Ruth when she was 10. When she got pregnant at 11, the priest paid for her to get an abortion.

Think Ruth could have told an interesting story on the witness stand? But the prosecution did not call her to testify, and they didn't tell the jury about Ruth getting pregnant, or her abortion, or those orgies that she claimed that Father Cudemo had forced her to participate in with other priests. Instead, the jury was given a G-rated summary of a story rated XXX.

But back to Father Brennan's story. In 1995, he was cited for having permanent guests staying over in his guest room in the rectory without authorization. That resulted in a change of residences for Father Brennan. In 1995, Father Brennan requested a leave of absence from Msgr. Lynn.

Father Brennan told Lynn he "needs time to discern what is going on his life." Father Brennan also told the monsignor that he was dealing with the fallout from sexual and emotional abuse dating back to when he was four years old. The abuse resulted in the priest having trouble dealing with authority figures.

When he wrote to Cardinal Bevilacqua, seeking permission for a leave of absence, Father Brennan talked about the "inner turmoil" in his own life. He again brought up sexual abuse, according to the cardinal, which he said had "involved four young men."

Later, when he was questioned by Jack Rossiter, a former FBI agent working for the archdiocese, Father Brennan denied that he told the cardinal about any sexual abuse. But the records showed that Father Brennan also spoke on that same topic to Msgr. Lynn.

Father Brennan asked the cardinal for six months off, to be used for "therapy and discernment." He also said he wanted to live as a lay person.

Father Brennan's spiel did not impress his boss. The cardinal recorded in his own notes of the meeting, that he had "certain doubts in my mind about his [Father Brennan's] complete honesty."

Father Brennan told Msgr. Lynn that he was looking to start a business with his brother. In one phone conversation, Lynn told Father Brennan that he had heard a different story from other priests. The archdiocese rumor mill said that the real reason that Father Brennan was seeking a leave of absence was because he wanted to "shack up with a former student," Msgr. Lynn told Father Brennan.

Brennan told the monsignor that he was upset by the rumors, but Lynn recorded in his own files that he told Father Lynn not to worry, because rumors are not put into personnel files." In a meeting with the monsignor, Father Brennan also told Lynn that he needed time to process abuse that was "physical, emotional and sexual."

Father Brennan got the six months leave of absence. When it was up, he requested another six months from the cardinal. Returning to active ministry at this time would be premature, Father Brennan wrote the cardinal. Because he had "many issues surfacing," but was also experiencing "the mysteries of faith and prayer in a whole new way,"the priest wrote.

Meanwhile, while living as a lay person, the priest also ran up $15,000 in credit card debt. Father Brennan told the cardinal that he needed another six months of work to pay down that debt. When the monsignor said the archdiocese could loan him the money to pay off his debt, Father Brennan refused, saying it would be unfair to the archdiocese.

Lynn had doubts about what Brennan was up to. The priest "seems to be a man who is lost and wandering," and needs to "find his way back to the Lord," the monsignor wrote in his private files. Father Brennan's reasons for delaying his return to ministry, Lynn noted, appeared to have "little rational basis."

When his leave of absence was finally up, Father Brennan compared himself to the parodical son, in a 1997 letter to Bevilacqua, referring to the biblical story about the man who squandered his fortune on prostitutes and riotous living. Father Brennan also wrote that he appreciated the way the cardinal welcomed him back without judging him. The priest said the cardinal's love was "Christ-like," and that he would "strive to follow" Bevilacqua's example of a "concerned father."

When he ran off a few years later to become a Trappist monk, with the cardinal's permission, at first, Father Brennan was estatic. He talked about how he could watch a couple of bald eagles frolic in the sky, and be reminded of Psalm 91, which compares trusting in God to the protection of an eagle. "He shall cover thee with his feathers; under his wings thou shall trust."

He could rhapsodize over finding a couple cartons of milk in the refrigerator. "His only goal," he told Lynn, was "to get to heaven."

He referred to the Trappist monastery in South Carolina as "the convergence point in my spiritual journey." But nine months later, he was writing Lynn that he had run into some problems. He was sick of the chores on the organic chicken farm. He decided he had gifts he needed to share with people, and that to stay on the chicken farm would amount to hiding "the Lord's gifts under a bushel basket."

He was tired of "coaxing eggs out of chickens." "Pardon my verbosity," he wrote the monsignor, adding "at least you'll never be bored with me."

He asked for, and got a return to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2001. But by 2005, he was asking for another transfer out of the archdiocese, to a parish on the outer banks of North Carolina. Then came the charge of abuse, and Father Brennan the spiritual seeker wound up as a defendant in Courtroom 304.


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