The sex abuse trial of three priests, a former priest and a Catholic school lay teacher is expected to take four months, but it won’t even start until the last week of March 2012.
Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington said he has between 65 and 75 witnesses, and Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina will conduct a hearing next month to decide if Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua will be one of them.
Bevilacqua was Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic archbishop when the alleged sexual abuse of two minors occurred during the 1990s.
Attorneys for one of the defendants, Monsignor William Lynn, and an attorney for Bevilacqua have argued that the 88-year-old cardinal is too ill to testify and suffers from dementia. Lynn’s attorneys, Jeffrey Lindy and Thomas Bergstrom, reminded the court that prosecutors had said they had not needed Bevilacqua’s testimony while a grand jury was investigating sexual abuse of minors by clergy.
During a scheduling conference before Sarmina on Aug. 5, Blessington said prosecutors now feel that they need Bevilacqua’s testimony and feel that it should be videotaped, or “preserved,” precisely because the cardinal is in such poor health. The greater the time to the trial, he argued, the greater chance Bevilacqua’s health would further deteriorate.
Sarmina said she wanted to see the cardinal’s medical records by Aug. 22 and would hear arguments about Bevilacqua’s competency to testify on Sept. 12.
A national support group for victims of clerical abuse immediately applauded Sarmina’s decision.
“It is every victim’s dream and every enabler’s nightmare that a callous and corrupt official who could and should have prevented heinous crimes might face tough questions under oath about his complicity,” said David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
“We hope this sends a shudder of fear down the spines of high-ranking Catholic figures everywhere,” Clohessy said in an e-mail to the Northeast Times.
Lynn in February became the first Roman Catholic administrator in America to be charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of children even though it was not alleged he had had any contact with minors.
Prosecutors maintain that Lynn, who was Bevilacqua’s secretary for clergy, had endangered children by allowing his co-defendants, James Brennan and Edward Avery, to continue to live in city parishes where they could have access to children even though he had investigated allegations of their sexual misconduct with minors.
Lynn, Brennan, Avery, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and Bernard Shero all were arrested after a Philadelphia grand jury in February released its report on sexual abuse of minors by the city’s Roman Catholic clergy.
Lynn faces two counts of endangering the welfare of children and conspiracy. The others were charged with rape and related offenses and conspiracy. All have pleaded not guilty.
The District Attorney’s Office began investigating Avery and Engelhardt in 2009 after the archdiocese notified authorities of complaints against the two men. Avery since has been defrocked.
Engelhardt, an Oblate of St. Francis DeSales, was accused of molesting a 10-year-old boy in the sacristy of St. Jerome’s Roman Catholic Church in Winchester Park in 1998 and 1999. The grand jury said Engelhardt then told Avery about the boy, and that Avery began molesting the boy. Shero, a lay teacher at St. Jerome’s parish school, molested the victim, now an adult, the next year the grand jury said.
The grand jurors said Lynn knew of previous allegations involving a minor and had ordered Avery to get therapy. The grand jury said Lynn ignored recommendations that Avery not be trusted around children and had him assigned to St. Jerome’s parish.
During the course of the probe, investigators started looking into allegations Brennan had molested a Chester County boy in 1996. The grand jurors said Lynn knew of previous allegations against Brennan but had transferred him anyway. Brennan was assigned to St. Jerome’s parish in 1997.
“The rapist priests we accuse were well known to the Secretary of Clergy [Lynn], but he cloaked their conduct and put them in place to do it again,” the grand jurors wrote.
The grand jurors also said the archdiocese knew of dozens of priests who were suspected of being molesters, but those priests still were active.
Cardinal Justin Rigali, Philadelphia’s archbishop, immediately denied that grand jury charge, but about a week after that, he relieved three priests of their ministries and not long after that put 21 more on leaves of absence while their cases are reviewed.
Rigali, 76, resigned last month.
Sarmina on Friday said jury selection would begin Feb. 21 and the trial would begin March 26. She initially wanted jury selection to start Jan. 17, but defense lawyers had asked for a later date because they either needed more time to wade through thousands of pages of evidence or they had scheduling conflicts with that date.
Scheduling wasn’t the only conflict discussed last week.
Conflict of interest was the other. Blessington said Bevilacqua is represented by the same law firm that represents the archdiocese and that there was a potential for a conflict of interest. Sarmina said she would hear arguments on that point also on Sept. 12.
The judge excused attorneys for Avery, Brennan, Shero and Engelhardt from attending the Sept. 12 hearing.
Conflict of interest has come up before in this case. Lynn’s attorneys are being paid by the archdiocese, a point that concerned Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes.
During a March hearing, she cautioned Lynn that “someone else whose interest might not always align with yours is paying your attorneys” and suggested to Lynn that there might be several conflicts. Lynn said he trusted his attorneys.
Sarmina denied a request by Engelhardt’s lawyer, Michael McGovern, to lift a gag order imposed by Cardwell Hughes in March.
Sarmina said the case will not be tried in the news media.
McGovern, a former assistant district attorney, said the District Attorney’s Office was leaking information to the media, and he wanted the opportunity to put out his side of things. Blessington countered that prosecutors were not leaking anything and were following the judicial process.
The judge warned all parties not to talk to the media.
“Any violation of the gag order will be dealt with by me very severely,” she said, “and I’m not kidding.”
Also last week, Burton Rose, who represents Shero, said he was asking Common Pleas Judge Lillian Ransom to reconsider her decision not to sever Shero’s case from those of the other defendants in light of her decision to scrap the conspiracy charge against him on July 29. Ransom had upheld conspiracy charges against the other defendants. ••
Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or firstname.lastname@example.org