Judge cancels competency hearing for Bevilacqua

Posted: September 08, 2011

The judge in the looming sex-abuse trial of four current and former priests on Wednesday canceled a competency hearing and deposition for Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua that would have been the prelate's first planned public appearance since a grand jury vilified him and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for its handling of abuse allegations.

Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina didn't cite a new date or a reason for scrapping Monday's hearing, which she ordered last month after prosecutors and defense lawyers clashed over whether Bevilacqua was fit to testify. Both sides are due back in court Oct. 7, records show.

Still pending is a request from Bevilacqua's lawyer that the reclusive 88-year-old prelate be spared from testifying or allowed to answer questions in a closed hearing at home instead of in court.

Sarmina issued her order on the same day that lawyers for Msgr. William J. Lynn, the former Bevilacqua aide accused of covering up clergy sex abuse, sought to dismiss charges against him or move his trial from Philadelphia.

In motions to Sarmina, lawyers Thomas Bergstrom and Jeffrey Lindy contended their client had been unfairly tarnished in a "firestorm" of unbalanced media coverage. They also petitioned the judge to lift the long-standing gag order that bars them, the defendants, and the prosecutors from speaking publicly about the case.

In both requests, Bergstrom and Lindy cited the recent release of thousands of pages of grand jury testimony and subsequent reports about it in The Inquirer. They argued that prosecutors violated court rules by not first getting a judge's approval to attach typically secret testimony to a public filing.

"This avalanche of material released to the press has created a one-sided, and, in certain cases, a distorted view of the events - material which may never be deemed admissible in a trial setting," the lawyers said in their motion.

Citing the gag order, a spokeswoman for Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams said the office would have no comment on the new filings.

Lynn, 60, faces trial in March on endangerment and conspiracy charges. Prosecutors say Lynn, as archdiocesean secretary for clergy, knowingly put abusive priests in posts that gave them access to young people whom they then allegedly assaulted.

Specifically, the charges stem from the alleged rape of two boys in the 1990s by three priests and a teacher. The four were arrested and charged in February after a yearlong grand jury investigation that also accused church officials of failing to properly address clergy sex abuse or respond to victims.

Lynn is believed to be the only church official nationwide charged with covering up alleged sex assaults on children or protecting alleged abusers.

Through his lawyers, Lynn has denied the charges and vowed that he will be vindicated at trial. Like the other defendants, he has pleaded not guilty.

But with jury selection almost six months away, the slow drip of evidence and their inability to counter it is hurting their client, Lindy and Bergstrom say.

In particular, they cited stories in The Inquirer last week that highlighted Lynn's testimony about one defrocked priest, the Rev. Stanley Gana, who was removed as pastor of a Bridgeport, Montgomery County, church in 1995, three years after the first abuse allegations were made against him. The article noted Lynn's concession to the grand jury that his first investigation into complaints about Gana had "slipped through the cracks."

"While the Gana case is but a single event in the universe of priest-abuse investigations conducted by Monsignor Lynn," his lawyers wrote, "it is portrayed in the press as evidence of Monsignor Lynn's overall neglect, leading to the inappropriate conclusion that indeed a conspiracy was afoot."

Had they been allowed to publicly respond to the article, "a minimum of a semblance of balance may have been accomplished," Bergstrom and Lindy wrote. "After all, many reading these articles will likely be members of the jury pool from which all parties will seek a fair and impartial jury."

Whether that jury will hear from Bevilacqua is unclear. He is not charged in the case, but prosecutors contend his testimony is needed to strengthen their conspiracy charge against Lynn.

The clash over Bevilacqua's testimony started in July, when prosecutors filed 1,200 pages of transcripts from the cardinal's 2003 and 2004 appearances before the first Philadelphia grand jury that looked at allegations of sex abuse by local priests.

Lynn's lawyers contended the previous testimony should be inadmissible in the current case because they couldn't cross-examine the cardinal, who has been diagnosed with cancer and dementia.

Prosecutors asked the judge to question the cardinal anew and to videotape the hearing in case he is unable to testify at the trial. Assistant District Attorneys Mark Gilson and Mariana Sorensen also asked for the hearing to be held in open court, arguing that Bevilacqua should be treated as any other witness.

But Brian J. McMonagle, Bevilacqua's defense attorney, told Sarmina the prelate was too sick to testify, and complained that prosecutors were trying to make him "walk the gauntlet" under a media spotlight at the courthouse. McMonagle wants to present doctors at a competency hearing who will testify that the cardinal is unfit to be questioned.

Bevilacqua retired in 2003 after 15 years as leader of the 1.5-million member archdiocese.

Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 215-854-4774, jmartin@phillynews.com, or @JPMartinInky on Twitter.


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