Priest prosecutors can't get church judge as witness

File photo: The Rev. James Brennan leaves the Criminal Justice Center after a hearing. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)
File photo: The Rev. James Brennan leaves the Criminal Justice Center after a hearing. (Sarah J. Glover / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 18, 2012

Prosecutors in the landmark trial involving the Catholic Church's handling of allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests have been stymied in an attempt to compel the testimony of a church judge who participated in a previous canonical trial of the Rev. James J. Brennan.

"We are having a problem with a material-witness petition in West Virginia," Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington told Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina on Tuesday.

According to Blessington, an unnamed West Virginia judge has balked at honoring the district attorney's "material-witness petition" for Msgr. Michael Quirk, one of three church judges who heard the 2008 canonical trial of Brennan on child sex-abuse charges.

Brennan is a defendant in the Philadelphia criminal trial for the rape of a 14-year-old boy in 1996, an assault he has denied.

On trial with Brennan is Msgr. William J. Lynn, who as secretary for clergy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004 was responsible for investigating allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests. Lynn is the first church official to be criminally charged with enabling or covering up the allegations.

The prosecution in the trial, now in its fourth week, maintains that the Philadelphia Catholic Church had a long-standing pattern of trying to avoid scandal at the expense of the priests' past or future victims.

As part of the trial, Blessington has said he wants to present testimony from Quirk about Brennan's testimony during the 2008 canonical trial.

Although the canonical trial was in Philadelphia, Quirk is assigned to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., where he is judicial vicar and assistant to Bishop Michael J. Bransfield.

A week ago, prosecutors approached Sarmina at the end of a trial session and asked for her to write asking the West Virginia judge to honor the petition from a Pennsylvania Common Pleas Court.

Although state court subpoenas usually have no effect on other state's courts, they are often honored as a matter of courtesy among judges.

The West Virginia judge has apparently decided that Quirk's testimony would not rise to the level of being a "material witness" and has not honored the petition.

Because all of the lawyers are barred from commenting to reporters by Sarmina's gag order, it is difficult to discern whether there are deeper issues involved.

Blessington, for example, on Tuesday referred to Bransfield as "Quirk's boss" as if the diocese there might be objecting to Quirk's testimony. Blessington also hinted at a link between the Wheeling bishop and the Rev. Stanley Gana, one of the most notorious priests highlighted in two grand jury investigations of clergy sex abuse within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Gana was defrocked in 2006.

Blessington did not elaborate. Bransfield, according to church biographical information, was from Philadelphia and, though 10 years apart in age, he and Gana were contemporaries in the seminary here and were ordained by then-Philadelphia Cardinal John Krol.

There was no indication Tuesday about how the impasse over Quirk's testimony will be resolved. Blessington told Sarmina that "I want to make that part of the record because it quite possibly could lead to a delay or need for other intervention."

Much of Tuesday's testimony at the trial of Lynn and Brennan came from the questioning of two detectives assigned to the District Attorney's Office about how Lynn handled the investigation of allegations of sexual abuse against two priests, the Rev. Thomas J. Smith and the Rev. John Schmeer, both ultimately ousted from their ministries.

Both detectives were questioned by a prosecutor, who had them read excerpts from church files describing how Lynn dealt with allegations against the priests. Then the witnesses were cross-examined by a Lynn defense attorney who tried to show that Lynn was the church official who effectively ended their careers.

Detective James Dougherty, for example, testified about his review of 20 files and documents, mostly from 2002 and 2003, that pertained to internal archdiocesan investigations of priests accused of sexual abuse.

The alleged abuse occurred in the 1970s and '80s but apparently was not reported to the archdiocese until about April 2002. Lynn, who was responsible for overseeing the investigations, left his post as secretary of the clergy in June 2004.

On cross-examination, defense attorney Jeffrey Lindy tried to establish that Lynn had acted responsibly.

Reading from a summary document, Lindy pointed to at least three instances in which the parents of children supervised by Smith complained that the priest had told the boys to strip naked, and engaged in other improprieties, apparently as part of preparations for a seasonal Passion play.

Lindy read from a letter, summarizing a conversation between Lynn and Smith, in which Smith acknowledges that his behavior was "stupid . . . wrong" and "inappropriate."

"Within two weeks of getting the complaint, Msgr. Lynn got a confession from Father Smith," Lindy said. Dougherty, a former homicide detective, said that appeared to be correct.

Blessington then re-questioned Dougherty and got him to say that, as a veteran police officer, he felt Lynn had not done enough to pursue investigatory leads about other, unnamed individuals who may have been abused by Smith.

Lindy exploded with a loud objection.

"Did Msgr. Lynn spend 20 years in homicide? . . . Yes, or no? . . . Did he have the training that you have?"


Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian

at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or @joeslobo on Twitter.

We invite you to comment on this story by clicking here. Comments will be moderated.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|