Catholic backgrounds of juror candidates impacting who gets chosen for abuse case

Awaiting trial in alleged abuse are Msgr. William J. Lynn, a former administrator of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia ...
Awaiting trial in alleged abuse are Msgr. William J. Lynn, a former administrator of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia ...
Posted: February 29, 2012

One of the first juror candidates called into the courtroom Tuesday where two current and one former Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests awaited trial was a 32-year-old man who said he worked in corporate finance and lived in Northern Liberties.

According to a questionnaire the man filled out, he was Catholic and once lived in or near the Bucks County parish where one of the accused priests worked.

Next came a 44-year-old college administrator who attended parochial school and grew up in Mount Airy, the neighborhood where another defendant was a parish pastor.

Then an 18-year-old unemployed barista took the stand. She graduated in 2011 from Archbishop Prendergast High School in Drexel Hill.

Each reflected a recurring dilemma for the defendants and lawyers in the landmark case: Should they choose Catholic jurors? And if so, how will those jurors' own experiences with the church affect their judgment?

"I would be fair," the college administrator told Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina. Still, she was excused from the panel.

By the end of the day, the lawyers and judge had qualified six women and five men - half their goal - as jurors in next month's endangerment and conspiracy trial for Msgr. William J. Lynn, a former archdiocesan administrator, and two former parish priests, Edward Avery and the Rev. James J. Brennan, accused of molesting boys.

All have pleaded not guilty.

The jurors' names, like their questionnaire responses, are confidential. But based on the discussion in open court, more than half the potential panelists called in for interviews seemed to come from Catholic backgrounds, be practicing church members, or have ties to the archdiocese.

Being Catholic isn't a reason for disqualification. It was unclear if the priests, lawyers, and prosecutors thought Catholic jurors would help or hurt their case. The judge has barred them from talking to reporters.

But there's no question that familiarity with and allegiance to the church is an issue in selecting jurors, as it might subconsciously be in deliberations.

The questionnaire potential jurors filled out last week didn't specifically ask their religion. But it did ask if they attended a Catholic grade school, and which one.

It also included a query: If you are Catholic, would you be able to make an independent decision based on the evidence and follow the law as the judge instructed?

The issue was so important that Sarmina regularly repeated the question during the courtroom interviews. The corporate financier, for instance, told the judge he regretted checking a box indicating he could be fair.

"The more I thought about that, I don't think I can be so impartial," the man said, calling himself "antireligion."

He was sent home.

The questionnaires also asked jury pool members if they recognized the names of the defendants or dozens of potential witnesses. The court interviews suggest that some didn't realize that their priests, parishes, or children's schools had been named in one of the grand jury reports about clergy sex abuse or could surface at trial.

The ties are not surprising. The archdiocese says it has about 1.5 million members in nearly 280 parishes across the region. And prosecutors plan to mention dozens of priests and church officials during next month's trial, including at least 22 priests suspected of molesting minors.

Many of those clerics served in multiple parishes over the years. That means countless weddings, First Communions, church picnics, or other opportunities for the prospective jurors to have interacted with the men whose names will dominate the trial.

For instance, a 46-year-old Roxborough laborer in the jury pool acknowledged hearing rumors over the years about sex abuse by priests at schools he attended. He said he didn't know the details.

Still, Lynn's lawyers argued that the man had a conflict because he knew the Rev. John Dux, a retired priest suspected of molesting children over decades.

"Father Dux is going to play a role in this case, there's no question about it," attorney Thomas Bergstrom told the judge.

That man was excused.

So, too was a 38-year-old preschool teacher who attended St. Helena's elementary school in Philadelphia and who said her boyfriend's uncle was a bishop in New Jersey. The woman said she never discussed the abuse scandal with the bishop and didn't expect to. She also said a priest in her mother's parish was removed in recent years, but she wasn't sure why.

"I'm not at that parish," the teacher said. "St. John's is my parish, but I don't really go to church."

The next juror to be interviewed was a 57-year-old employee of the Liquor Control Board who also reported graduating from St. Helena's.

He said he attended Cardinal Dougherty High School from 1969 until 1973, a stretch when another allegedly abusive priest, the Rev. Peter J. Dunne, was on the faculty.

But the LCB worker told the judge and lawyers he didn't recall Dunne.

Minutes later, they agreed to add him to the jury.


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

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