Sorting decades-old evidence could be “an impossible task”


Leg­al ar­gu­ments for and against us­ing dec­ades-old al­leg­a­tions against Phil­adelphia priests as evid­ence in the up­com­ing sexu­al ab­use tri­al of two priests and an ex-priest con­tin­ued Monday, with one de­fense at­tor­ney claim­ing that sort­ing out what evid­ence could be presen­ted is “an im­possible task.”

Com­mon Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina said she would de­cide on what she’ll al­low at tri­al by or be­fore Feb. 6. However, the judge did rule that re­tired Car­din­al An­thony Bevilac­qua, the city’s former arch­bish­op, could be called as a wit­ness.

Re­cap­ping three-days of hear­ings last week, pro­sec­utors on Monday said they want to re­late more than a score of cler­ic­al case his­tor­ies go­ing back 40 or more years in or­der to give jur­ors a more com­plete pic­ture of how the city’s Ro­man Cath­ol­ic arch­diocese handles mo­lesta­tion al­leg­a­tions.

“It’s all about the nat­ur­al his­tory of the case,” said As­sist­ant Dis­trict At­tor­ney Patrick Bless­ing­ton.

De­fense at­tor­neys for Monsignor Wil­li­am Lynn, the Rev. James Bren­nan and former priest Ed­ward Avery ar­gued the ma­ter­i­al about oth­er priests taken from arch­dioces­an re­cords had no bear­ing on the charges their cli­ents are fa­cing and that present­ing it as tri­al evid­ence would be pre­ju­di­cial.

The three were ar­res­ted in Feb­ru­ary 2011 along with Charles En­gel­hardt, an Ob­late of St. Fran­cis De­Sales, and former lay teach­er Bern­ard Shero. En­gel­hardt and the former teach­er will be tried later. Lynn, Bren­nan and Avery are slated for tri­al March 26.

On Tues­day, de­fense at­tor­neys and Bless­ing­ton re­viewed with the judge ques­tions that they will ask pro­spect­ive jur­ors.

Bren­nan is ac­cused of sexu­ally ab­us­ing a minor and so is Avery. En­gel­hardt and Shero also are fa­cing mo­lesta­tion charges. Lynn, who served as Bevilac­qua’s sec­ret­ary for clergy, is not ac­cused of touch­ing a child. Rather, the monsignor faces charges his ac­tions al­lowed Bren­nan and Avery to com­mit the crimes they’re ac­cused of. He is charged with en­dan­ger­ing chil­dren. All have pleaded not guilty.

Pro­sec­utors last week re­lated ac­counts of ac­cus­a­tions against priests — at times, in dis­turb­ing de­tail — as de­fense at­tor­neys de­bated the value of bring­ing up old al­leg­a­tions of priests not on tri­al.

Thomas Bergstrom, one of Lynn’s law­yers, in­sisted that the evid­ence presen­ted should be about the ac­tions of the de­fend­ants, but said Lynn was in high school when some of the ac­tions al­legedly com­mit­ted by oth­er priests were tak­ing place.

He said Judge Sarmina has been giv­en the “im­possible task” of sep­ar­at­ing what might be pre­ju­di­cial to his cli­ent from what wouldn’t be.

“This case is not im­possible,” countered Bless­ing­ton. “It’s un­pre­ced­en­ted.”

Lynn is fa­cing tri­al be­cause his ac­tions — or in­ac­tions — made it pos­sible for Bren­nan and Avery to mo­lest chil­dren, Bless­ing­ton said. Be­fore the court told law­yers they may not dis­cuss the case openly, pro­sec­utors had said Lynn was the first mem­ber of the Ro­man Cath­ol­ic hier­archy in the coun­try charged in a mo­lesta­tion case, not as a mo­lester, but as someone who en­abled child mo­lesta­tion.

“He let these guys com­mit crimes,” Bless­ing­ton said.

Wil­li­am Bren­nan, James Bren­nan’s at­tor­ney, said pro­sec­utors were try­ing to build a his­tory of pri­or bad acts against his cli­ent when all they had was the one wit­ness he is ac­cused of ab­us­ing.

None of the case his­tor­ies brought up by pro­sec­utors last week ap­plies to his cli­ent, Bren­nan said. And, the law­yer ar­gued, bring­ing up old com­plaints that the Rev. Bren­nan had noisy parties or that he drank too much would only pre­ju­dice jur­ors against him.

“Every piece of evid­ence is pre­ju­di­cial,” Bless­ing­ton said.

Bergstrom re­newed de­fense re­quests to not al­low Car­din­al Bevilac­qua’s video­taped testi­mony to be played in the tri­al and to not al­low the car­din­al to testi­fy either, say­ing the 88-year-old former lead­er of the city’s Ro­man Cath­ol­ics was not com­pet­ent to testi­fy.

Sarmina brushed that re­quest aside, hold­ing to her earli­er de­cision to al­low the car­din­al to testi­fy.

De­fense at­tor­neys had tried to keep Bevilac­qua, for whom Lynn had worked, from testi­fy­ing be­cause he suf­fers from de­men­tia and can­cer, but in the fall, Sarmina took — and taped — testi­mony from the ail­ing car­din­al at his sub­urb­an res­id­ence.

The car­din­al doesn’t re­cog­nize Lyn­nn, the Bergstrom said.

The at­tor­ney un­suc­cess­fully ar­gued Monday that us­ing Bevilac­qua’s taped testi­mony would deny de­fense at­tor­neys the chance to cross-ex­am­ine him and that court testi­mony wouldn’t be worthy be­cause the car­din­al’s memory is im­paired.

Bevilac­qua, who has a law de­gree, did not testi­fy be­fore the grand jury whose in­vest­ig­a­tions led to the ar­rests of Lynn and the oth­ers. He did, however, an­swer ques­tions be­fore a pre­vi­ous grand jury. ••


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