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.
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.
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. ••