A Jury Stuck on Father Brennan

By Ralph Cipriano
Philadelphia Priest Abuse Trial Blog
June 11, 2012

Jurors in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sex abuse case Monday sent a few more questions to the judge that took a few more passes over well-plowed ground.

Jurors then followed up those questions by re-hearing a two-hour transcript of the 2008 church canonical trial of Father James J. Brennan read into the record back on April 30th by Msgr. Kevin Quirk. The transcript told the priest's version of the night he was accused of allegedly attempting to rape 14-year-old Mark Bukowski.

By day's end, the jurors seemed stuck on the Father Brennan case. Meanwhile, the judge appeared crabby, the prosecutors seemed edgy and the defense lawyers couldn't be blamed if they were daring to dream about a hung jury.

The first question the jurors asked Judge M. Teresa Sarmina was, does a person charged with endangering the welfare of children have to be engaging in criminal behavior?

In response, the judge offered the example of a person who doesn't feed his child for a day. That person may not guilty of a crime, the judge said. But if that person doesn't feed his child for say, three weeks, that same person may be guilty of murder.

So the judge's answer to the jury's question was, "It does not have to be, but it could be."

The second jury question posed to the judge was, does a person have to know that their conduct is criminal in order to be guilty of committing a crime? It's that old argument over whether ignorance of the law is any excuse. The judge's answer: No, a person does not have to know what they're doing is criminal in order to be guilty of committing a crime.

Both questions were interpreted by courtroom observers to pertain to the Brennan case, where the priest is charged with attempted rape, and endangering the welfare of a child. The jurors were thought to have decided the Brennan case last week, and were perceived as moving on to the more complicated case of Msgr. William J. Lynn. But Monday's questions appeared to show that the jury was, at least for the moment, still bogged down on Father Brennan.

If the first two questions the jurors asked appeared to hang on the Brennan case, the third question left no doubt. The jurors asked for a copy of the transcript of Msgr. Quirk's April 30th testimony, where he read into the record the transcript of the church's canonical inquest into the case against Father Brennan.

The judge said that jurors were not permitted to have copies of transcripts. Moments later, jurors requested that the transcript of Msgr. Quirk's testimony be read to them. So for two hours, the court reporter read back that transcript to jurors.

Before the read back, however, the judge griped about the tardiness of defense lawyers Thomas Bergstrom and William Brennan, who showed up a few minutes late when they were summoned to court to hear the jury's new questions. The judge has advised lawyers in the case, and their clients, to hang out near the court, so that if the jury has a question, everybody can show up in Courtroom 304 within 15 minutes.

"We have a 15-minute rule," the judge reminded the defense lawyers. She said if the lawyers couldn't get to court on time, the other option was to require everyone to sit around the courtroom and wait for jury questions, without any option of leaving.

When the court reporter read back the 55-page transcript, jurors again heard Father Brennan's rambling account of horrific surgery that he had while he was in the seminary, and was found to have a large bone cyst on his sternum. The priest's medical ordeal was part of his testimony to Msgr. Quirk.

The priest recounted surgery where his entire sternum was removed, along with sections of his ribs, and large portions of chest muscle. The doctor who performed the surgery filled the hole in the priest's chest with a substance used to make bullet-proof vests. The doctor had to stretch muscle tissue from the priest's back and shoulders to compensate for the chest muscle the priest had lost. The surgery resulted in horrific pain and agony for the young Father Brennan, who was left with a concave chest. One wondered what effect the account of the priest's ordeal would have on jurors.

In the transcript, the priest also shared his personal story of being raised by an absentee father, and a alcoholic, physically abusive mother.

By the time the court reporter got to the story of Mark Bukowski, some in the courtroom had forgotten that the boy's parents had originally asked the priest to take the boy for a weekend, because he was "behaving erratically," and the parents thought the priest could somehow divine what was wrong with their 14-year-old.

It's a continuing mystery in the Catholic church why husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, bring their intimate family problems to an emotionally stunted celibate in a collar, who usually doesn't have a clue what's it like to live in the real world, or have a relationship with another human being.

Father Brennan told Msgr. Quirk he thought it was odd that the first thing Mark Bukowski did when he showed up at the priest's apartment was take off his boxers, and run around the place in baggy gym shorts. The priest told the monsignor that the boy explained to him that his mother always let him run around like that at home.

The priest recounted how the boy jumped on the priest's laptop, and wanted to see "some really great porn sites." Father Brennan, fueled by three or four beers, then accompanied the boy to a couple of porn sites, before the priest decided it was time to tuck the lad in for the night in the priest's king-size bed.

"Why don't you take half the bed, and I'll take half the bed," the priest recalled saying. When they got in bed, both the priest and the boy were wearing t-shirts and shorts, Father Brennan told the monsignor. While in bed, the 14-year-old brought up the porn sites, and said he was upset that he did not get an erection while viewing them.

"Do you think you need help with that?" the priest testified he told the boy, meaning that perhaps he should see a doctor. The priest confided to the monsignor that before he went to sleep, "I'm thinking, what's wrong with this kid?"

The jury was probably thinking, what's wrong with this priest?

Bukowski's story is that Father Brennan restrained the boy with his arms, while he pressed his erect penis between the boy's buttocks.

But in the canonical trial, the priest denied touching the boy sexually -- "Absolutely not" or even holding him -- "Not that I recall," he said.

The priest told the monsignor he met with Mark Bukowski's parents at a hotel after the incident, and he thought they accepted his explanation that he had done nothing improper with the boy. Three years later, in 1999, the boy's parents again reached out to Father Brennan, when Mark Bukowski needed to perform community service after he got arrested. The priest arranged a gig where Bukowski mowed church lawns.

The parents also sought out the priest in 2004 after Mark Bukowski's father lost his job, and the family was looking for financial assistance.

But when Bukowski's tale of abuse finally emerged in 2006, "You may as well beat me over the head with a baseball bat," Father Brennan told Msgr. Quirk. "I had no clue."

After hearing Father Brennan's testimony again, it was hard not to disagree. Now the jury is struggling to figure out whether the clueless Father Brennan deserves to wind up in jail. It may take a while.


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