Four current and former Catholic priests ordered to trial on sex abuse charges

Posted: March 26, 2011

Four current and former Catholic priests are headed to trial after a judge ruled Friday there was sufficient evidence of sex abuse, conspiracy, and child endangement for the case against them to proceed.

In a two-hour session punctuated by angry outbursts from some of the lawyers, as well as from the bench, Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes turned down defense requests for a preliminary hearing at which the defendants could have confronted their accusers in open court.

The stage now is set for a legal battle that would be, in part, nationally unprecedented.

Msgr. William J. Lynn - accused of conspiring with three priests who allegedly raped or sodomized two altar boys in the mid-1990s - is the first member of the Roman Catholic hierarchy in the United States to be charged with child endangerment.

Prosecutors allege that Lynn, as Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua's secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, put children "in harm's way" by recommending that known abusers continue in ministry in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Many, they say, were sent to parishes where the priests had "not only access to children, but also extraordinary power and influence over them and their families."

The Rev. James Brennan, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, and a defrocked priest, Edward Avery, also were held for trial, as was Bernard Shero, a former parochial school teacher charged with raping one of the boys.

Through their lawyers, the men have denied the crimes.

Because a grand jury recommended the charges after reviewing exhaustive evidence, Hughes said there was no need for a preliminary hearing to determine whether a trial was warranted.

"This is so patently unfair!" shouted Michael McGovern, Engelhardt's lawyer. Shortly afterward, in a softer voice, he said, "I just want a preliminary hearing, Judge."

"I heard you, baby, and you're not getting it," Hughes replied.

As McGovern continued to protest, she told him, "You need to shut up," and loudly ordered him to sit.

Citing the "extraordinary amount" of media attention to the case, Hughes imposed a gag order and barred the lawyers and defendants from talking to reporters until at least April 15, when the men are expected to formally plead not guilty.

"There are to be no more interviews with anyone," the judge said, noting that some lawyers and defendants had made radio and television appearances.

"I don't want tweets. I don't want Facebook," she said. "I don't want to see any of you on [Hardball With] Chris Matthews" - a show that had recently featured District Attorney Seth Williams discussing the case.

Earlier in the hearing, Hughes asked Lynn to stand and questioned him in detail about his fee arrangement with his lawyers. The archdiocese is paying Lynn's lawyers, Jeffrey M. Lindy and Thomas A. Bergstrom. Prosecutors challenged that as a possible conflict.

The judge agreed, and said she wanted to be sure Lynn understood.

"You have been charged. You could go to jail," she told him. "It may be in your best interest to provide testimony that is adverse to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Your testimony could be detrimental to the organization that's paying your lawyers."

Standing before the judge in his Roman collar and black clerical garb, the 60-year-old Lynn said he understood the potential conflict and was not concerned. "I trust these two men," said Lynn, who until his arrest last month was pastor of St. Joseph's parish in Downingtown.

Also on Friday, Hughes allowed prosecutors to add conspiracy charges against not only Lynn but also the other defendants, none of whom wore clerical clothes. They did not acknowledge one another in the courtroom.

Prosecutors assert that Lynn "colluded" with the priests and archdiocesan leaders "to deceive parishioners so that known child abusers could continue as active and revered priests."

Lynn, who as secretary for clergy recommended priests' assignments and handled sex-abuse complaints, "actively abetted" Avery and Brennan, who went on to assault the boys, prosecutors said.

Brennan, 47, is accused of sexually assaulting a teen in 1996 while on a leave of absence after five years on the faculty at Cardinal O'Hara High School in Springfield, Delaware County. Avery, 68, was defrocked in 2006 over an earlier abuse allegation. Shero, 48, no longer works as a teacher.

Late in Friday's hearing, Richard L. DeSipio, Brennan's lawyer and his onetime classmate at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, accused prosecutors of being "anti-Catholic."

In a letter to the judge, prosecutors said a former student had recently come forward with a claim of abuse, and that DeSipio might have heard about the alleged incident while he was in the seminary and Lynn was dean of students.

"I'm offended," DeSipio said angrily. "How dare they send that letter attacking me as a Catholic?"

"Attack you?" Hughes said, her voice rising. "They raise a legitimate legal issue."

If DeSipio were to become a witness in the case, she explained, that would pose a conflict of interest and he would not be able to remain as Brennan's lawyer.

Prosecutors said they were still investigating that abuse allegation - one of many that have come in to the District Attorney's Office since the grand jury report was made public last month.


Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

 

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