Northeast Times

Family of deceased accuser files suit against priest

The fam­ily of a man who had ac­cused a former North­east Phil­adelphia par­ish priest of mo­lest­ing him when he was a child has filed a wrong­ful-death suit against the Rev. Robert Bren­nan and Phil­adelphia’s Ro­man Cath­ol­ic arch­diocese. The late Sean McIl­mail’s par­ents, De­borah and Mi­chael, also are su­ing Monsignor Wil­li­am Lynn, the first mem­ber of the Cath­ol­ic hier­archy in the United States to be con­victed of en­dan­ger­ing chil­dren by shield­ing a pe­do­phile priest.

In their suit, the Wil­low Grove couple claimed Bren­nan sexu­ally ab­used their son for three years while the priest was as­sist­ant pas­tor of Re­sur­rec­tion of Our Lord par­ish in Rhawn­hurst, and that ab­use led to his drug ad­dic­tion and his mid-Oc­to­ber fatal drug over­dose at age 26.

The fam­ily and their at­tor­neys, Dan Mo­n­ahan and Marci Hamilton, an­nounced the suit dur­ing a news con­fer­ence on Nov. 13 at the Mar­ri­ott Down­town in Cen­ter City.

The ab­use and the memory of it made Sean McIl­mail’s life a “hell on Earth,” his moth­er said.

She re­ferred to crosses the Cath­ol­ic Church uses to rep­res­ent thou­sands of abor­ted ba­bies. She said there should be crosses to rep­res­ent the thou­sands who are ab­used by Cath­ol­ic clergy. She said she hoped oth­ers who were mo­les­ted by cler­gy­men would come for­ward.

“He was self­less, gentle, caring and a simple per­son. He wanted peace and wanted to avoid con­flict. He was quick to for­give,” De­borah McIl­mail said of her son. “He was smart, witty, en­joyed mu­sic and com­ed­ies and loved his fam­ily.”

“He was a great per­son,” Sean’s broth­er, Mi­chael, said. “He suffered a great deal. He battled a lot of demons.”

Sean McIl­mail sought treat­ment with coun­selors and ther­ap­ists, his moth­er said. It took him 14 years to talk about his mo­lesta­tion, she said. He wanted to help oth­ers with sim­il­ar prob­lems, she said.

Sean McIl­mail put up a good front on the out­side, his moth­er said, but “on the in­side, he didn’t be­lieve in him­self.”

The un­speak­able ab­use, she said her son had suffered, would haunt him forever.

“We’re happy now he’s fi­nally at peace,” Sean’s broth­er said.

SEPTEM­BER AR­REST

Phil­adelphia au­thor­it­ies ar­res­ted the 75-year-old Bren­nan in late Septem­ber on charges he mo­les­ted Sean McIl­mail. Less than a week after McIl­mail died, Dis­trict At­tor­ney Seth Wil­li­ams an­nounced his of­fice couldn’t pur­sue the pro­sec­u­tion without their primary wit­ness.

Wil­li­ams had said the al­leged mo­lesta­tions began in 1998, when the boy was 11, and con­tin­ued in the par­ish rect­ory, Bren­nan’s bed­room and else­where un­til Sean McIl­mail was 14. 

Hamilton said earli­er re­ports that Sean McIl­mail had been an al­tar boy at the time Bren­nan is ac­cused of mo­lest­ing him were not ac­cur­ate. However, part of the ab­use, she said, was that Bren­nan made Sean dress as an al­tar boy.

The at­tor­ney said that Sean McIl­mail worked in the church as part of its al­tar guild, but was not an al­tar boy.

The McIl­mails main­tained in their leg­al fil­ing that the arch­diocese and Lynn knew with cer­tainty since 1988 that “Bren­nan had a sexu­al in­terest in chil­dren.” That was when Sean McIl­mail was 2 years old, Mo­n­ahan said.

Bren­nan began his as­sign­ment at Re­sur­rec­tion par­ish in 1993.

The fam­ily’s suit con­tains an ac­count of com­plaints about Bren­nan’s con­duct around chil­dren in sev­er­al sub­urb­an par­ishes that were in­vest­ig­ated by the Church and by Lynn, who be­came Car­din­al An­thony Bevilac­qua’s sec­ret­ary for the clergy in 1992. Part of Lynn’s job, which he held for a dozen years, was to in­vest­ig­ate com­plaints against priests, re­com­mend treat­ment and as­sign­ments. 

De­cisions about those as­sign­ments, however, Lynn’s at­tor­neys have main­tained, were ul­ti­mately the car­din­al’s, not Lynn’s.

The McIl­mail com­plaint also con­tains a list of Bren­nan’s as­sign­ments to dif­fer­ent par­ishes and sev­er­al trips to St. John Vi­an­ney, an arch­dioces­an-owned Chester County hos­pit­al that treats priests who are al­co­hol­ics, drug users or pe­do­philes, or priests who have au­thor­ity is­sues.

COV­ER-UP CHARGED

In their suit, the McIl­mails claim Lynn was part of an arch­dioces­an con­spir­acy to con­ceal Bren­nan’s be­ha­vi­or.

Hamilton said the arch­diocese did noth­ing to warn par­ents about Bren­nan, whom she labeled the “worst of the worst.” She said the arch­diocese knew of at least 20 com­plaints about Bren­nan’s be­ha­vi­or — from par­ents, em­ploy­ees and oth­er priests.

A spokes­man said the arch­diocese would have no com­ment on the suit.

Bren­nan re­mained at Re­sur­rec­tion un­til 2004. While there, Mo­n­ahan said, Bren­nan mo­les­ted two oth­er boys. Both those al­leged vic­tims already have filed suits, the at­tor­ney said. They are known as John Does in court pa­pers.

McIl­mail re­por­ted the al­leged ab­use to the arch­diocese in Janu­ary, and the Church re­por­ted the al­leg­a­tions to au­thor­it­ies, who in­vest­ig­ated them.

“He was de­term­ined to get justice,” Hamilton said.

Bren­nan was ar­res­ted on Sept. 25 and charged with mo­lest­ing McIl­mail and ini­tially kept in cus­tody with bail set at $1 mil­lion. He was freed when his bail was re­duced and he learned he would not be fur­ther pro­sec­uted after McIl­mail, the main wit­ness against him, died of a drug over­dose. Crim­in­al charges were with­drawn Nov. 14.

Asked if it would be dif­fi­cult to prove that McIl­mail’s death was tied to the al­leged mo­lesta­tion, Mo­n­ahan said, “I’m sure we will be able to sub­stan­ti­ate it.”

The McI­m­ails also are mak­ing a sur­viv­al claim. Mo­n­ahan ex­plained they are seek­ing any money their son would have re­ceived if he had lived to suc­cess­fully sue Bren­nan, the arch­diocese and Lynn.

Bren­nan was or­dained in 1964. Since, he had been sta­tioned in St. Pi­us X par­ish in Broomall; Stella Mar­is in Phil­adelphia; St. George, Glen­olden; St. Helena, Phil­adelphia; St. Ig­na­tius, Yard­ley; St. Elean­or, Col­legeville; St. Mary, Schwenks­ville; Re­sur­rec­tion, Phil­adelphia; and from 2004 to 2007, he was chap­lain of Ca­m­illa Hall, a Mal­vern re­tire­ment home for nuns. In 2007, the arch­diocese re­moved Bren­nan from any act­ive min­istry.

Bren­nan lives in Mary­land, where he was ar­res­ted Sept. 25. When he was brought to Phil­adelphia on Sept. 27, he was im­prisoned with bail set at $1 mil­lion. That bail sub­sequently was re­duced to $50,000, and Bren­nan was re­leased. He re­turned to Mary­land. He was not present at a pre­lim­in­ary hear­ing today in the Crim­in­al Justice Cen­ter where charges against him were to be dropped. Mo­n­ahan said this suit and al­most 20 sim­il­ar com­plaints he and Hamilton have filed let vic­tims “know they can come for­ward.”

Al­though the arch­diocese paid for Lynn’s de­fense in his 2012 crim­in­al tri­al, it did not pay for Bren­nan’s de­fense and was in no way in­volved in it, spokes­man Ken Gav­in had said after Bren­nan’s ar­rest. In fact, the arch­diocese has asked the Vat­ic­an to “la­icize” Bren­nan so he could no longer be re­garded as a priest. The arch­diocese is ob­lig­ated to pay Bren­nan a pen­sion as long as he is a priest, Gav­in said.  

Tre­van Bor­um, Bren­nan’s at­tor­ney, said he would com­ment after he’s seen the McIl­mail’s suit. He said he didn’t know wheth­er or not he would handle the civil case.

In 2012, Lynn was con­victed of en­dan­ger­ing chil­dren after a three-month tri­al. He nev­er was ac­cused of ever touch­ing a child. Pro­sec­utors as­ser­ted Lynn knew Ed­ward Avery, now de­frocked, was a child mo­lest­ing priest and was, there­fore, re­spons­ible for the sexu­al ab­use of a minor com­mit­ted by Avery when he was still a priest in the North­east’s St. Jerome’s par­ish. Lynn is ap­peal­ing his con­vic­tion while he serves a three-to-six-year pris­on sen­tence.

“To file such a suit against Monsignor Lynn is, in­deed, a sur­prise as it is in­con­ceiv­able that such a suit against him, giv­en the known facts, would be suc­cess­ful,” said at­tor­ney Thomas Bergstrom, who rep­res­en­ted Lynn in his crim­in­al tri­al and is hand­ling his ap­peal. “And, yes, we will de­fend him.”

Avery pleaded guilty to mo­lesta­tion charges be­fore he was to go on tri­al with Lynn in March 2012. He is serving a two-to-five-year sen­tence. Dur­ing the sub­sequent tri­als of the Rev. Charles En­gel­hardt and former St. Jerome’s par­ish school teach­er Bern­ard Shero earli­er this year, Avery denied he had ever touched, or even known, the boy who had ac­cused all three men of mo­lest­ing him while he was a St. Jerome’s pu­pil. Avery said he had pleaded guilty to mo­lesta­tion charges be­cause he felt it was the best he could do for him­self to re­duce the time he would be in­car­cer­ated.

“I didn’t want to die in pris­on,” he said. ••

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

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