At clergy abuse trial, witness tells of encounters


The Rev. James Bren­nan was a close fam­ily friend, a wit­ness told the jury in the cler­ic­al sex ab­use tri­al last week. But after years of good times to­geth­er, the wit­ness tear­fully re­called “Jim” show­ing him por­no­graph­ic Web sites and try­ing to mo­lest him when he was 14.

“I loved him,” the wit­ness said of his ex­per­i­ences with Bren­nan be­fore he said the priest ab­used him. “He was like an uncle.”

The 30-year-old man who took the stand on April 4 was the first wit­ness against Bren­nan, who is ac­cused of at­temp­ted rape and con­spir­acy. Much of the tri­al’s pre­vi­ous six days had been fo­cus­ing on how Phil­adelphia’s Ro­man Cath­ol­ic Arch­diocese — and Bren­nan’s co-de­fend­ant, Monsignor Wil­li­am Lynn — had handled al­leg­a­tions against oth­er priests ac­cused of be­ing child mo­lesters.

Ques­tioned by As­sist­ant Dis­trict At­tor­ney Mark Cipol­letti, the wit­ness against Bren­nan told the court about the priest’s weekly vis­its to the fam­ily home while he was in grade school and how he was par­tic­u­larly close to the wit­ness’s moth­er, who was a Euchar­ist­ic min­is­ter in their Bucks County par­ish.

He re­coun­ted how he had spent a lot of time with Bren­nan, al­most al­ways in the com­pany of fam­ily mem­bers.

But then there was one night about a dec­ade and a half ago that he stayed overnight in Bren­nan’s West Chester apart­ment. The two planned to play an early round of golf the next day. The wit­ness said he was alone with the priest when Bren­nan in­vited him to look at sex chat rooms on the In­ter­net, wanted him to mas­turb­ate with him and fi­nally got in­to bed with him.

Both re­mained clothed in un­der­wear, the wit­ness said, but he de­scribed Bren­nan “spoon­ing” with him and pulling him close. The wit­ness said he prayed to fall asleep and even­tu­ally did. He said as far as he could re­call, no sexu­al pen­et­ra­tion oc­curred. He said the next thing he could re­call was be­ing at a Shore re­sort the next day, telling his moth­er what had happened. He said he had no memory of how he had got­ten to the Shore.

De­fense at­tor­ney Wil­li­am Bren­nan zer­oed in on the holes in the wit­ness’s memory, even ask­ing him if he knew what the cur­rent month was.

“May,” the wit­ness said.

The wit­ness had re­coun­ted a life sub­sequently filled with drug and al­co­hol ab­use, men­tal health prob­lems, sui­cide at­tempts and crimes like for­gery and mak­ing a false re­port to po­lice. At­tor­ney Bren­nan, who is not re­lated to his cli­ent, asked the wit­ness if it wasn’t true that he had earli­er had some school prob­lems. The wit­ness, who earli­er had said he had got­ten good grades in school, said he had been de­pressed and had ac­ted out a bit.

The wit­ness, an ex-Mar­ine, said he only re­cently had com­pleted a men­tal health pro­gram in Eagleville, Mont­gomery County, and had trouble re­call­ing where or when he had met with pro­sec­utors.

In his open­ing state­ments on March 26, Wil­li­am Bren­nan had at­tacked the cred­ib­il­ity of the wit­ness. He told jur­ors the wit­ness was a crim­in­al, and stressed that he had been con­victed of mak­ing a false re­port about an of­fense that did not oc­cur.

On April 4, the wit­ness said that his con­tact with Fath­er Bren­nan dropped off after the West Chester in­cid­ent and after his par­ents had dis­cussed it with the cler­gy­man. However, he said, he had been re­quired years later to do com­munity ser­vice as part of his pun­ish­ment for theft and he did that at Bren­nan’s par­ish.

He said he thought he could have an easy time of it be­cause he knew Bren­nan. At one point, he saw the priest in a shed in a state of un­dress. He said the priest in­vited him in, but he left, and said he nev­er saw the priest again un­til his testi­mony began last Wed­nes­day.

At­tor­ney Bren­nan ques­tioned the wit­ness about his past and about his at­tempts to get money from the arch­diocese un­til the wit­ness asked Com­mon Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina if he would stop for the day. She agreed, and the wit­ness took the stand again on Thursday, re­por­ted.

When the wit­ness took the stand again Thursday, at­tor­ney Bren­nan con­tin­ued to ques­tion the man’s cred­ib­il­ity and reas­ons for ac­cus­ing his cli­ent.

The As­so­ci­ated Press re­por­ted that the law­yer said the wit­ness’ par­ents had re­mained friends with Fath­er Bren­nan for years after the West Chester in­cid­ent al­legedly oc­curred and that the wit­ness had not told them about it be­cause it nev­er happened.

The wit­ness ex­ploded, AP re­por­ted, telling the at­tor­ney he should be ashamed of him­self.

Bren­nan’s co-de­fend­ant Wil­li­am Lynn is not ac­cused of mo­lest­ing chil­dren. However, he is charged with en­dan­ger­ing chil­dren. He is the first mem­ber of the Ro­man Cath­ol­ic hier­archy in Amer­ica to face that charge in re­la­tion to a child mo­lesta­tion case, pro­sec­utors said after Lynn’s Feb­ru­ary 2011 ar­rest.

Pro­sec­utors said Lynn en­dangered chil­dren be­cause he al­lowed Bren­nan and former co-de­fend­ant Ed­ward Avery to con­tin­ue in min­is­tries in which they could have con­tact with chil­dren even though he had know­ledge of al­leg­a­tions against them.

Testi­mony and lengthy re­views of doc­u­ments in the first six days of the tri­al showed Lynn, in his 14-year role as sec­ret­ary for clergy, in­vest­ig­ated mo­lesta­tion al­leg­a­tions against arch­dioces­an priests, sent those priests to treat­ment and re­com­men­ded their as­sign­ments.

Hun­dreds of memos, let­ters and re­ports were re­viewed in the open­ing days of what is ex­pec­ted to be a very long tri­al.

The tri­al ori­gin­ally was to have five de­fend­ants — Bren­nan, Lynn, Avery, the Rev. Charles En­gel­hardt and former lay teach­er Bern­ard Shero. All were ar­res­ted in Feb­ru­ary 2011 after a grand jury re­leased a re­port on sexu­al ab­use by the city’s Ro­man Cath­ol­ic clergy.

That grand jury began its in­vest­ig­a­tions after the arch­diocese re­por­ted both Avery and En­gel­hardt to au­thor­it­ies. Grand jur­ors al­leged the same St. Jerome pu­pil was mo­les­ted first by En­gel­hardt, then by Avery and fi­nally by Shero, who taught at the par­ish school.

Dur­ing their in­vest­ig­a­tion, grand jur­ors began look­ing in­to al­leg­a­tions against Bren­nan. Fi­nally, they charged that Lynn was re­spons­ible for acts com­mit­ted by Avery and Bren­nan in that minors were mo­les­ted after the monsignor knew about charges against the two priests.

At­tor­neys for En­gel­hardt and Shero suc­cess­fully ar­gued to have their cli­ents face tri­al sep­ar­ate from Lynn. They will be tried in early Septem­ber. Avery pleaded guilty to con­spir­acy and mo­lesta­tion charges days be­fore the tri­al began March 26. He was sen­tenced to two and a half to five years in pris­on.

The tri­al con­tin­ues in Courtroom 304 of the Crim­in­al Justice Cen­ter, at 13th and Fil­bert streets. ••


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