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 children.
The upcoming drama essentially entails three different cases:
Case #1: 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.
Case #2: 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 Philadelphia.
Case #3: 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 been unsuccessful.
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 last summer.
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, snapdoodle!”
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 attorney’s inquiry.) (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 Red Cross.)
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 upcoming trial.
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 different occasions.
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 filed yet.
As with other cases, we will have to see how this ongoing narrative pans out.
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