The sanctuary of the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia, viewed from down the main aisle. (CNS photo)
2012 looks to shape up as
another big year for stories about the Catholic Church abuse narrative.
As things appear now, jury
selection for the high-profile trial of priests in Philadelphia will begin on
February 21, 2012, and the trial will begin in March. Some observers believe
the trial may run as long as four months.
To recap: Five current and
former Church employees, arrested last year, face charges for the abuse of
The upcoming drama
essentially entails three
: A man (named “Billy” in last year’s
grand jury report) has accused three different men current priest Rev.
Charles Engelhardt, former priest Edward Avery, and former teacher Bernard
Shero of raping and molesting him over a decade ago when he was an altar boy
at St. Jerome Parish in Philadelphia.
: A second man (Mark Bukowski) has accused
Rev. James Brennan of raping him over 15 years ago. At the time, Fr. Brennan
was parochial vicar at St. Andrew Church in Newtown, Pennsylvania, a suburb of
: Prosecutors are charging Msgr.
William Lynn, who was the Secretary for Clergy under Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua,
with endangering children and conspiracy, in that he deliberately
allowed these priests to molest
children. Last summer, one of Lynn’s lawyers argued that the conspiracy charge “doesn’t
stand on any legal footing at all” because the monsignor did not directly
supervise children. Attorneys have sought to quash the charge, but they have
It is essential to note
that all of the defendants vehemently
deny the charges against them and assert their
innocence. In fact, the defendants swiftly rejected plea deals offered to them
There is certainly no
merit in dwelling in conspiracy theories and unfounded speculation, but there
are reasonable grounds to believe that the Church has been getting a bit of “rough
justice” in Philadelphia.
Judges in the preliminary
proceedings in the last year have certainly appeared to be less than impartial.
The first judge to oversee
the case’s hearings, Renee Cardwell Hughes, was quite antagonistic to attorneys
for the accused clerics.
In a hearing last spring,
Hughes repeatedly berated the defense attorneys, addressing them as “baby” and
angrily ordering them to “shut up and sit down.” When a defense attorney
legally challenged the judge on a particular point, Hughes snapped, “Well,
At one point during
another hearing, Judge Hughes blurted out, “Avery, Engelhardt, and Shero (three
of the defendants) picked a child and singled him out.”
Well, that bold assertion
sure seems like something for a jury
to decide. Yet Hughes appeared to betray her
impartiality and opine that the issue had already been settled.
At the same hearing, Judge
Hughes rejected defense attorneys’ request for a preliminary hearing. (“I heard
you, baby, and you’re not getting it,” replied Judge Hughes to a defense
.) (While a preliminary hearing is not
guaranteed under the Constitution, it is
guaranteed that defendants be presented with all of the
evidence against him. Evidence-related issues have been disputed quite a bit
during preliminary hearings.)
Meanwhile, Hughes did not
unleash any of her venom at the prosecuting attorneys.
(It should be noted that Hughes was always “known for
colorful language and fiery outbursts”
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court chastised the judge last May after it was
learned that Hughes ordered a court reporter to illegally alter a court
transcript in a 2008 death penalty case. Hughes wanted the transcript altered
to remove derogatory remarks she had made about a defendant. The Supreme Court
said Hughes’ actions were “reprehensible” and “should be condemned universally.”
Judge Hughes left the bench last April to take a leadership position with the
The new judge, M. Teresa
Sarmina, has not fared much better in projecting impartiality.
Judge Sarmina also
rejected defense attorneys’ request to lift the gag order in the case. (Under a
gag order, lawyers and defendants are prohibited from talking to the press.)
The prosecutors certainly have no interest in lifting the gag order because the
publicity and media coverage they have received has been overwhelmingly slanted
in their favor.
Most notably, Sarmina
wholeheartedly accepted the prosecutors’ demand last fall that Cardinal Anthony
Bevilacqua, the former archbishop of Philadelphia, take a deposition for the
upcoming trial. This was despite the fact that Bevilacqua was 88 years old and
had been quite ill. He reportedly suffered from dementia and cancer. [Editor's note: Cardinal Bevilacqua died on January 31st
at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary where he was residing.]
Prosecutors have wanted to
question the ailing cleric about how he once handled abuse cases during his
tenure, which ended in 2003. Judge Sarmina ruled that Bevilacqua was “competent”
to give a deposition.
Yet when the deposition
came in November, Bevilacqua was so weak, attorneys claim, that he could not
even recognize his longtime aide of 12 years, Msgr. William Lynn, now a
defendant in the trial.
“There were times during
the deposition he appeared to struggle, to the point of tears, at his inability
to recall and effectively answer the questions,” defense attorneys wrote after
the deposition. “For the most part, his memory bank was an empty room.” (See "Lawyer:
Retired Pa. cardinal didn't recognize aide"
, Dec. 8, 2011)
Even worse, Judge Sarmina
has ruled that she may require Cardinal Bevilacqua to testify in person at the
So much for the
discernment and neutrality of Judge Sarmina.
Obviously there will be a lot
more to report on this case in the
coming weeks. Stay tuned.
One group that will
certainly be watching the cases in Philadelphia closely is the advocacy group
SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).
(By the way, SNAP has long
allied with prosecutors in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office in its
crusade against the Catholic Church. Current and former assistant district
attorneys including the lead prosecutor in the ongoing case, Mariana Sorensen
have appeared publicly with SNAP members on a number of occasions in past
years in efforts to lift statues of limitations. (Lifting the statutes of
limitations allows more lawsuits against the Catholic Church, as accusers can
sue no matter how long ago the alleged acts are said to have occurred.))
However, SNAP appears to
have become mired in some notable legal troubles recently.
Early last month, a judge
ordered SNAP’s national director, David Clohessy, to appear at a deposition
regarding a civil abuse case being tried in Missouri.
Defense attorneys for an
accused Catholic priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph have been able
to effectively demonstrate that attorneys for an accuser violated a judge’s gag
order. The defense attorneys have shown that plaintiff attorneys conspired with
SNAP and media outlets by providing information about lawsuits that were not
even filed publicly in court yet
Attorneys have revealed this shifty succession of events happening on two
Attorneys for an accused
priest concluded, “Plaintiff counsel and SNAP are working in concert to vilify
[the accused cleric] and the Diocese in the media.”
SNAP’s Clohessy has raced
to the media to give the impression that his deposition was about “bishops” and
“the Catholic Church” trying to disparage SNAP and violate the privacy of
individuals who have sued for abuse.
Nothing could be further
from the truth. The fact is that it is pretty obvious that Clohessy was party
to the violation of a gag order, and defense attorneys had every right to
question him about this.
Although Clohessy wants
people to believe otherwise, he never would have been deposed in this case if
he were not found to be participating in a surly collaboration that has been
deemed a violation of a court order.
Many observers have long
suspected a friendly alliance between members of the media, contingency
lawyers, and SNAP. Court documents filed by defense attorneys in Missouri have
now proven that this is not just some paranoid suspicion. Indeed, plaintiff
lawyers provided information to SNAP about lawsuits that had not even been
As with other cases, we
will have to see how this ongoing narrative pans out.