Feds Indict Former Philly Priest Who Escaped Abuse Charges When His Accuser Died of a Drug Overdose
By Peter Hall
September 5, 2019
|A photo of former priest Robert Brennan, right, is displayed during a news conference in November 2013 in Philadelphia, where attorneys for the family of Sean McIlmail announced a wrongful death lawsuit against Catholic church officials. (Matt Rourke/AP)|
A former Catholic priest who escaped charges that he molested an 11-year-old altar boy when the alleged victim died has been charged in federal court with making false statements to the FBI.
In an indictment unsealed in federal court Thursday, Robert Brennan, 81, of Perryville, Maryland, who served at Resurrection of Our Lord Parish in Philadelphia from 1993 to 2004, is charged with four counts of making materially false statements to federal investigators. He is accused of lying about whether he knew the alleged victim or his family.
Brennan was arrested Thursday morning in Maryland and appeared in federal court in Philadelphia Thursday afternoon.
“Making false statements to the FBI is a serious crime, and given the circumstances, the alleged false statements here are particularly disturbing,” U.S. Attorney William McSwain said in a statement. “We will use all of the tools at our disposal to hold this defendant accountable for his alleged actions.”
It is the first indictment out of a federal grand jury investigation McSwain launched in the wake of last year’s statewide grand jury report, which identified more than 300 priests in dioceses across Pennsylvania as abusers, including 37 in Allentown.
The state investigation resulted in only two clergy members being charged because so many of the accusations were too old to be prosecuted under the statute of limitations.
Legal experts said the federal investigation could break down the barrier to prosecuting the older accusations if prosecutors can show church officials had systematically covered up for child abusing priests in the last five years. Such evidence would allow a racketeering case against the church.
Church officials in Allentown, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Erie, Greensburg, and Harrisburg said in October they would cooperate with Justice Department officials.
A 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report said that Brennan was repeatedly named in complaints about inappropriate behavior around children. He was defrocked in 2017, four years after being charged by the Philadelphia district attorney’s office with sexually assaulting Sean McIlmail starting when McIlmailwas an altar boy at the Northeast Philadelphia church where Brennan was assistant pastor.
The charges were dropped in October 2013 after McIlmail, then 26, died of an apparent drug overdose. McIlmail’s family released his name in the hope that others who had contact with Brennan would come forward, the family’s attorney said at the time.
McIlmail’s family sued the Philadelphia Archdiocese and settled their claims for an undisclosed amount last year, according to the federal indictment made public Thursday.
Federal authorities allege Brennan lied to investigators this year when he denied knowing McIlmail or his mother, father and brother, the indictment says.
No attorney information was listed for Brennan. The case is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Morgan.
A Pennsylvania grand jury spent two years on the most exhaustive investigation of the church taken on by a state, releasing its findings in August 2018. It covered allegations in the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton dioceses, which collectively minister to more than 1.7 million Catholics. Earlier grand juries looked at the Philadelphia Archdiocese and Altoona-Johnstown Diocese.
In addition to the priests named by the statewide grand jury, the Allentown Diocese released its own list of accused priests, which added 15 names, for a total of 52.
McSwain sent broad subpoenas to dioceses across Pennsylvania in the wake of the statewide grand jury report. Brennan’s arrest is the first to stem from that probe.
Morning Call reporter Peter Hall can be reached at 610-820-6581; email@example.com