Reviewing the Sexual Abuse Trial
By Joseph A. Slobodzian
June 3, 2012
September 2003: A year after the scandal broke involving the sexual abuse of minors by priests in Boston, a Philadelphia County investigating grand jury is impaneled to begin looking at similar allegations involving priests in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
A grand jury report, released two years later, decried a “sad history of sexual abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia” that was “known, tolerated and hidden by high church officials, up to and including the Cardinal himself.” [This quotation is from the 2011 grand jury report (page 1), not the 2005 report. The quotation appears to describe the 2003 grand jury report.]
But the grand jury wrote that it could not recommend charges against the abusers or their superiors in the church hierarchy. The coverup had been successful, the District Attorney’s Office concluded. The statute of limitations — the time in which the District Attorney’s Office could file criminal charges — had expired. [See the 2005 grand jury report's Legal Analysis and Recommendations.]
2008: A year after the Pennsylvania legislature expanded the statute of limitations and also enabled the criminal prosecution of those who have supervisory control over people who sexually abuse minors, the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office impaneled a new grand jury, picking up where its predecessor left off and looking particularly at Msgr. William J. Lynn, the secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004 who was responsible for investigating sex allegations made against priests. The earlier grand jury had excoriated Lynn’s handling of abuse cases but had not recommended charges.
In January 2011, the District Attorney’s Office announced the results of the archdiocesan grand jury probe: charges against three priests and a parochial schoolteacher for allegedly sexually abusing minors and also against Lynn, 61, the first church official to be criminally charged for his supervisory role involving alleged pedophile priests. [See the 2011 report and presentment.]
Two of the priests, Edward Avery, 69, and Charles Engelhardt, 65, were accused of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy at the St. Jerome parish in Northeast Philadelphia from 1998 to 1999. The teacher, Bernard Shero, 49, was accused of assaulting the same child in 2000. The third priest, James J. Brennan, 48, was charged with the attempted rape of a 14-year-old boy in 1996.
By the start of trial March 26, the case was down to just Lynn and Brennan. For technical reasons, Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina had earlier decided to sever the cases of Engelhardt and Shero from the three other defendants; the two will be tried by a jury before Sarmina starting Sept. 4.
Avery pleaded guilty March 22, the week before the trial started. The terms of the plea agreement did not require him to testify for the prosecution. Avery is now serving a 2 1/2- to 5-year term at the state prison in Laurel Highlands in Western Pennsylvania.
MILESTONES IN THE TRIAL
Jan. 31: Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, the retired archbishop of Philadelphia, dies in his sleep — one day after Judge Sarmina rules that the 88-year-old prelate is competent to testify at trial. Lawyers and the judge had earlier videotaped a two-day private questioning of Bevilacqua to determine whether age and ill health made him unable to testify. A week later the Montgomery County coroner ordered toxicological tests on the cardinal’s body to rule out foul play. The death was ruled to be from natural causes.
Feb. 6: In a significant victory for prosecutors, Judge Sarmina rules that the jury will hear evidence of how archdiocesan officials — Lynn in particular — handled allegations of sex abuse against priests. Though the cases are too old to prosecute, the judge agrees with prosecutors that the old cases are needed to give the jury context to how the church handled Brennan, Avery, and Engelhardt — an alleged pattern and policy of covering up for and enabling deviate priests to continue preying on minors.
Feb. 15: Sarmina denied a defense motion for her to step down because of alleged partiality. During a Jan. 31 courtroom session to discuss a jury questionnaire, Sarmina rejected a question proposed by Lynn’s lawyers to ask prospective jurors if they believed child sex abuse was a “widespread” problem in the church. Sarmina called the question overly broad, adding: “Anyone that doesn’t think there was widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is living on another planet.” Sarmina said the defense took the statement out of context to stir controversy.
Feb. 21: Jury selection begins with an initial panel of 250 prospective jurors.
Feb. 24: Lynn’s lawyers disclose in court the discovery of a 1994 memo by aides to Bevilacqua documenting the cardinal’s order to shred a list compiled by Lynn of 35 archdiocesan priests suspected of sexually abusing children. Lynn’s lawyers say it proves the alleged church conspiracy was hatched far above Lynn’s level.
Feb. 29: A panel of 12 jurors is selected. Jury selection continues to pick 10 alternates in case one or more of the 12 cannot last what jurors are told will be a 10-week trial.
March 16: The archdiocese announces it has suspended its top lawyer, Timothy R. Coyne, and placed him on administrative leave. Coyne had been the church’s in-house counsel for six years and before that worked at Stradley, Ronon, Stevens & Young L.L.P., which for years had represented the archdiocese. Church officials refuse to explain, but the move triggers speculation that it involves the late discovery of the Bevilacqua “shredding memo.”
March 22: The former priest Edward Avery pleads guilty and is sentenced to 2 1/2 to 5 years in prison for sexually assaulting a 10-year-old boy in 1998 and 1999. Sarmina denies a defense request to delay the trial because publicity might have tainted the jury.
March 26: The trial begins with opening statements by prosecutors and defense lawyers. The prosecution’s first witness, Detective Joseph Walsh, assigned to the District Attorney’s special investigations unit, begins the protracted process of explaining the meaning of the first of thousands of internal church documents obtained by the prosecution.
April 4: A former Bucks County altar boy testifies that Brennan tried to rape him during a 1996 overnight stay at Brennan’s apartment in West Chester when he was 14. The witness, now 30, spends two days on the stand and breaks down several times while testifying about the impact the incident has had on his life. Brennan’s attorney attacks his credibility, citing a history of arrests for fraud and his lawsuit against the archdiocese.
April 12: The Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a nationally recognized expert on canon law and the sexual abuse of minors by priests, testifies that Bevilacqua violated both church and civil law in 1994 when he ordered aides to shred a list of priests accused of molesting minors.
April 19: Testimony taints the reputation of a West Virginia bishop, Michael J. Bransfield, of the Diocese of Wheeling- Charleston. A witness who said he was molested for six years during the late 1970s and early ’80s by Kensington priest Stanley Gana describes a meeting at which he was present between Gana and Bransfield. The witness said Gana told him that Bransfield — Gana’s classmate at the St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia — was having sex with teenage boys. Bransfield, 68, issues a statement denying the testimony: “I have never sexually abused anyone.”
April 25: Two men testify about how they were sexually abused by Avery at different parishes in the region.
April 30: The jury hears from Brennan — indirectly — when it is read excerpts from the priest’s 2008 canonical trial. Brennan testified that he let the 14-year-old Bucks County boy view pornography online and shared his bed but denied that he touched the teen or exposed himself. Brennan told his church interrogators that he thought his conduct “borderline” inappropriate but said he was “just devastated” when the young man came forward in 2005 and accused him of sexual assault.
May 4: Outside of the courtroom, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput announces that after a 14-month review, he has permanently removed five priests from active ministry for sexual abuse or misconduct with minors and reinstated three others against whom charges could not be substantiated.
May 17: The prosecutors rest their case after calling nearly 50 witnesses and presenting about 1,900 documents over eight weeks. Judge Sarmina grants defense motions and dismisses the conspiracy count involving Lynn and Brennan. Charges of attempted rape and endangering a child remain against Brennan, and Lynn remains charged with a conspiracy count involving Avery and a count of endangering minors.
May 22: The defense case begins with Lynn taking the witness stand. He will remain on the stand through a day of questioning by defense attorney Thomas A. Bergstrom and then go through three grueling days of cross-examination by Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington. Lynn rejects Blessington’s allegations that he lied and protected the church at the expense of sexual-abuse victims. Lynn testifies that he “did what I could” but that the ultimate decision was made by Bevilacqua.
May 30: The defense rests with a series of character witnesses for Lynn and another series of character witnesses for Brennan. Brennan does not testify in his defense.
May 31: Closing arguments are made by Bergstrom for Lynn, William J. Brennan for Brennan, and Blessington for the prosecution.
June 1: Judge Sarmina instructs the jurors in the law applicable to the case against Lynn and Brennan. The jury of seven women and five men deliberate three hours before breaking for the weekend. They resume work at 9:30 a.m. Monday and have asked for 10 documentary exhibits to be ready for them when they arrive.
— Joseph A. Slobodzian