Ousted priest at center of abuse trial

Stanley M. Gana , ousted priest.
Stanley M. Gana , ousted priest.

Prosecutors spent much of the week focusing on allegations against Stanley Gana. Also, a W. Va. bishop was accused.

Posted: April 22, 2012

Six years have passed since Stanley Gana was ousted from the priesthood over child-sex abuse claims, and another decade since he was removed as a pastor by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Yet prosecutors at the conspiracy and endangerment case against two Philadelphia priests spent much of last week telling jurors about the 69-year-old defrocked cleric.

As the landmark trial reached its midway point, Gana, who was left in ministry despite claims he raped multiple boys, represented a centerpiece of sorts.

His was a textbook example, prosecutors say, of how the archdiocese and its former secretary for clergy, Msgr. William J. Lynn, cared more about protecting the institution than abuse victims.

It also served as a backdrop for the most stunning revelation in the trial's first month: Allegations from two witnesses and a prosecutor that a sitting prelate, Bishop Michael Bransfield of West Virginia, may have known about sexual misconduct by Gana or abused minors himself.

Bransfield, a Philadelphia native who heads the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, responded with a staunch denial, calling the trial "a circus" and accusing prosecutors of irresponsibly smearing his name "to bolster their persecution of the church."

The witnesses were two men who said they endured years of sexual abuse by Gana when they were teens.

Both described being regularly raped and molested by the 300-plus-pound priest in the late 1970s or early 1980s, sometimes as part of a roster of boys that Gana allegedly rotated through his bedrooms at two Philadelphia parishes or at a house on a farm he owned north of Scranton.

One man told jurors that he was 13 when Gana began abusing him. After assaulting him in the Our Lady of Calvary rectory, he said, Gana would call Bransfield, a friend and former seminary classmate who had risen to a high-profile post as rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.

"They would be talking, and Stanley Gana would have me get on the phone and talk to Father Bransfield," said the man, now 45. "Father Bransfield would jokingly say, 'I'm going to have Stanley put you on the train to come down and see me sometime.' "

The second accuser, 48, testified that Gana once assaulted him at Bransfield's house in Brigantine, N.J. And he recalled being outside Gana's farmhouse when he said Bransfield stopped by with a car full of teens. He said Gana later told him: "They're his fair-haired boys. The one in the front seat he is having sex with."

Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington told Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina that Bransfield had also been accused in a separate instance of fondling a student, but he did not elaborate. A spokeswoman later said prosecutors could not discuss the matter, citing a gag order in the case.

Bransfield, whose nephew, the Rev. Sean Bransfield, is a canon lawyer and vice chancellor for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, had never been publicly accused of misconduct. He denied abusing anyone and attacked prosecutors for releasing allegations in a way he called "beyond any sense of fairness and propriety."

His statements highlighted an unusual facet of the case - that much of the prosecution case so far against Lynn is built on claims that have never been litigated and against priests, such as Gana, who have never been charged or represented in court.

In a key decision, Sarmina ruled that the prosecutors can introduce such evidence to show that Lynn became acutely aware of the depth and scope of clergy-sex abuse during his 12 years in the archdiocese administration, and that he, and the archdiocese, routinely ignored or failed to act on evidence of priests assaulting children.

The district attorneys are offering the evidence to bolster their claim that Lynn endangered children when he recommended the Rev. James J. Brennan and another priest, Edward Avery, for parish assignments in the 1990s despite knowing or suspecting them of misconduct with minors.

Avery has pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 10-year-old altar boy. Brennan is being tried with Lynn on charges that he attempted to rape a 14-year-old boy in 1996.

Both priests have often been footnotes in the first month of trial. Instead, jurors have heard a drumbeat of evidence about 15 other priests, nearly all of whom have died or been defrocked or removed from ministry. Most of the allegations against them were aired in the 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report about clergy sex abuse but were beyond the statute of limitations to be charged.

But prosecutors have adopted a courtroom blueprint to present them anew: Show jurors decades-old confidential church records that chronicle abuse claims and investigations, let them hear emotional testimony directly from the alleged victims, then read jurors the explanations Lynn gave to a grand jury a decade ago.

It's a strategy that has given defense lawyers little room to make their cases.

Brennan's lawyer, William Brennan (who is no relation), has repeatedly asked prosecutors to remind jurors that the old cases have nothing to do with the allegations against his client. "We're doing this star-chamber proceeding where these detectives get up and read this stuff [the church records] like it's gospel," he complained once when the jury was out of the room.

The task for Lynn's lawyers, Thomas Bergstrom and Jeffrey Lindy, has been more delicate.

Wary of being too aggressive with alleged victims, they instead have pressed witnesses to acknowledge that they never had contact with Lynn, or that if they did, the secretary for clergy responded promptly. They maintain that Lynn tried more than other church officials to isolate abusive priests and respond to victims but lacked the authority to do more.

Under cross-examination from Bergstrom last week, one of Gana's accusers conceded that he repeatedly demanded and received money from the priest after threatening to expose him.

Jurors are just as likely to remember his testimony about the abuse. Describing the harm the priest did to him, the man said: "It is an emptiness where my soul should be."

More is coming. Prosecutors are expected to call witnesses and accused victims of a half-dozen more priests, including the former altar boy whom Avery admitted assaulting. They also plan to continue reading Lynn's grand jury testimony, which could equally resonate with jurors.

Last week, they heard Lynn, in grand jury testimony from a decade ago, explain why he did not investigate claims in 1992 that Gana may have abused multiple teen boys. He was not sure about the accuser's credibility, he said, but did not try to interview other potential victims because he did not want to re-victimize them. Lynn also said he failed to send Gana for a medical evaluation or treatment because he was distracted by other aspects of his job.

Gana remained in his post as a pastor for three more years, until a second accuser came forward.

"As I look back on it," Lynn told the grand jury, "it was just one of those things that fell through the cracks."


Contact John P. Martin

at 215-854-4774 or at jmartin@phillynews.com. Follow him @JPMartinInky on Twitter.

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