Sex-abuse jury digs into details

The Rev. James J. Brennan is charged with attempted rape.
The Rev. James J. Brennan is charged with attempted rape.

Jurors weigh the fate of two Philadelphia priests.

Posted: June 05, 2012

Update 10:15 a.m. Monday: The jury has resumed deliberations.

The 11 weeks of speeches, emotional and shocking testimony, and legal fireworks are now memories.

When the landmark conspiracy and sex-abuse trial involving Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests resumes Monday, the action will be behind closed doors: a jury room off the large third-floor courtroom at the city's Criminal Justice Center.

There, seven women and five men will begin their first full day of trying to decide whether Msgr. William J. Lynn is criminally culpable for how the Philadelphia church handled the crimes of some of its priests.

The Common Pleas Court jurors worked just three hours Friday, but they already appear deep into dissecting the evidence.

The jury broke for the weekend at 3:30 p.m., but not before giving Judge M. Teresa Sarmina a list of 10 pieces of documentary evidence they want to take into the room when deliberations resume at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

Jurors did not appear to show any signs of emotion during their brief court appearance before they were dismissed.

Often, judges tell the jury its first job should be to elect a foreman or forewoman and decide how they will deliberate to try to reach a unanimous verdict.

This group of 12 appeared to have accomplished that task quickly and efficiently. The exhibits the jurors requested go to the heart of the case against Lynn and the Rev. James J. Brennan.

The charges against the two clerics are relatively few.

Lynn, 61, who as archdiocesan secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004 was responsible for investigating allegations of priests sexually abusing minors, is the first church official to be criminally charged for his supervisory role over wayward priests. He is charged with conspiracy and two counts of child endangerment.

Brennan, 48, is charged with the attempted rape of a 14-year-old boy in 1996 while the teen - Brennan was friends with the boy's parents - spent the night at the priest's West Chester apartment. He also is charged with child endangerment.

But in reaching a verdict, the jurors must sift through almost 11 weeks of evidence, including nearly 2,000 records, many of which documented decades of abuse by priests. They must also reconcile their individual memories of the testimony of more than 60 witnesses to arrive at a collective understanding of the facts in the case.

Their verdict must be unanimous and beyond a reasonable doubt. The law defines that phrase as a doubt that would make the typical person pause in a matter of importance in life: getting married, buying a house, starting a family.

The jury began its day Friday with more than an hour of legal instructions from the judge. Sarmina then excused six alternate jurors but cautioned two that they could be recalled during deliberations if one or more jurors cannot complete deliberations.

Sarmina also warned the jurors to avoid any news coverage of the trial as well as Internet sites and social media. The cannot resume deliberations until Monday when they are all together again in the jury room.

Under the U.S. legal system, the jury is the "sole judge of the facts." The jurors, individually and collectively, must judge the credibility of witnesses and decide whether documentary evidence means what the lawyers say it does.

The law and how jurors are to apply it to the evidence is the sole responsibility of the judge. And as compelling as the testimony often was, Sarmina told the jurors to use reason, not emotion, in reaching a verdict.

"You did hear many horrible things in this case," she told them, citing testimony from nearly two dozen alleged abuse victims. "But you are not here to decide the crimes against them."

Defense attorneys had tried to limit the case against Lynn to his handling of victims allegedly abused by Brennan and a former priest, Edward Avery. Avery, 69, pleaded guilty to sex-abuse charges the week before the trial started and has already been sentenced to 21/2 to 5 years in prison.

Prosecutors, however, persuaded the judge to let them introduce at trial information about the other priest cases to try to show Lynn's actions as secretary for clergy were part of a pattern and policy used in the archdiocese for decades.

Prosecutors argued that Lynn moved accused priests around to different parishes, enabling them to prey upon other children. Lynn, who testified in his own defense, denied the allegations and said his actions were limited by his official role; he said only the late Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua had the power to remove or transfer priests.

Brennan did not testify but denied the charges, and his lawyer argued that nothing improper occurred between Brennan and the teen he is accused of molesting.

Perhaps significantly, the exhibits jurors requested Friday did not include any about other pedophile priests, which the defense had fought hard to exclude.

Among jurors' requests was for Sarmina to review again for them the elements of the crimes of conspiracy and child endangerment.

The requested exhibits were integral to those charges.

For example, the jury asked to see the criminal record of the former teen altar boy, now 30, who accused Brennan of attempted rape.

Brennan's attorneys have argued that the witness' criminal convictions for fraud demonstrate his testimony should not be believed.

Jurors also asked for the "priest data files" - personnel histories - of Brennan and Avery.

And they asked to examine what is arguably the most sensational trial exhibit: a gray file folder found in an old, locked safe at archdiocesan headquarters that was turned over to prosecutors a month before trial.

Among the contents was a list of deviate priests in the archdiocese that Lynn testified he compiled in 1994 based on documents in the secret archives of the Philadelphia church.

Lynn told the grand jury and church attorneys no copies of the list existed or could be found.

In another safe was a 1994 memo signed and witnessed by two of Bevilacqua's top aides, Msgr. James E. Molloy and the Rev. Joseph Cistone, describing the shredding of the Lynn lists and related files on Bevilacqua's orders.


Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JoeSlobo.

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