Prosecutors: Archdiocese delayed reporting priests' involvement with child porn

Judge M. Teresa Sarmina unsealed a prosecution motion that contends the Archdiocese of Philadelphia waited until last month to tell law enforcement about priests caught with child pornography.
Judge M. Teresa Sarmina unsealed a prosecution motion that contends the Archdiocese of Philadelphia waited until last month to tell law enforcement about priests caught with child pornography. (GERALD S. WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer, file)
Posted: January 14, 2012

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia waited until last month to tell law enforcement about priests caught with child pornography despite knowing years ago about their "deviant and possibly illegal activities," prosecutors say.

In a motion unsealed Friday in Common Pleas Court, the commonwealth attorneys do not identify the priests or elaborate on what they call their "involvement" with child porn.

But they contend that the reporting delay supports their claim that the archdiocese and its newly hired lawyers are impeding evidence requests and attempting to influence witnesses in the conspiracy and child-sex abuse trial of four current and former priests.

The motion was filed Monday but remained sealed until Judge M. Teresa Sarmina unsealed it. The lawyers involved either did not respond to The Inquirer's requests for comment or declined to talk, citing the judge's gag order in the case.

The filing says the information about the child-porn allegations surfaced in archdiocese records that prosecutors subpoenaed in October. Two months later, investigators got their response: records of six area priests involved with child porn over the years.

The motion did not say if the priests remained in active ministry. But the records included letters the archdiocese sent to police properly notifying them about the priests' conduct. Three were dated Dec. 23, 2011, the motion said.

"At least some of these were cases where the archdiocese learned of the priests' deviant, and possibly illegal, activities years ago, but never reported them," Assistant District Attorneys Mariana Sorensen and Patrick Blessington wrote in their filing.

Possession or transmission of child pornography is a crime. Failing to report it can be, too.

In October, a grand jury in Kansas City, Mo., indicted the Catholic diocese and its bishop, Robert Finn, on misdemeanor failure to report charges for waiting six months to notify police about a priest with child pornography on his computer. The bishop has pleaded not guilty.

Finn's indictment came nine months after Philadelphia prosecutors charged a former ranking archdiocesan official here, Msgr. William J. Lynn, with child endangerment and conspiracy for allegedly protecting or enabling sexually abusive priests.

Lynn, the secretary of clergy until 2004, faces trial in March, along with two priests and a former priest accused of molesting boys in the 1990s. All have pleaded not guilty.

The prosecutors' motion was the latest salvo in their attempt to convince the trial judge that the archdiocese is trying to influence witnesses and sway that case, even though it is not a defendant.

"The archdiocese has a demonstrated interest and a heavy investment in Lynn's acquittal," they wrote.

They complained that new criminal lawyers for the archdiocese sent a letter to all priests last month urging them not to talk to investigators or reporters about the case without first notifying church officials. The lawyers, Robert Welsh and Catherine Recker, also informed prosecutors that they represented four priests who could be trial witnesses.

One, prosecutors say, has since "significantly backtracked" from his earlier statements about another priest suspected of inappropriate conduct. That priest, the Rev. Joseph Okonski, allegedly told a detective he found a video of a man "whipping a naked young boy" in the room of the Rev. Michael Murtha at St. Anselm parish, in Northeast Philadelphia, in 1995.

"The commonwealth viewed Father Okonski as a unique and important witness, a good priest who did the right thing," the prosecutors wrote.

Okonski now says the video showed two adults, not a child, the motion says.

Eugene Tinari, a lawyer hired this week by Okonski, declined to comment.

Prosecutors cited the exchange as proof of a "chilling effect" they say the new archdiocesan lawyers are having. They asked the judge to disqualify Welsh and Recker from any further contact with witnesses and to rescind their letter to priests and church employees.

"The unavoidable fact is that Welsh and Recker cannot properly represent such witnesses because they represent the archdiocese, which is funding the defense of the lead criminal defendant in this case," the assistant district attorneys contend in the motion.

In a hearing last month, Welsh disputed the accusations, saying his letter to employees was a standard practice and pledging the archdiocese's cooperation with investigators.

Sarmina has ordered lawyers to return Jan. 26 for another hearing on the matter.


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

 

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