Defense lawyer voices frustration as priest trial jury asks to rehear testimony

The Rev. James J. Brennan (center) arrives at court for Tuesday's proceedings. The jury in the landmark sex-abuse trial has not yet reached a verdict. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
The Rev. James J. Brennan (center) arrives at court for Tuesday's proceedings. The jury in the landmark sex-abuse trial has not yet reached a verdict. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 13, 2012

The judge looked stunned.

After absorbing 11 weeks of trial, getting answers to more than a dozen questions, and hearing hours of testimony replayed, jurors in the clergy sex-abuse trial ended a seventh day of deliberations Tuesday without a verdict, but instead with another request.

They asked to again hear the testimony related to four witnesses, including the two former altar boys whose abuse claims form the heart of the landmark case.

To read it all could take days.

The developments offered the clearest proof yet of the jury's struggle to render verdicts against Msgr. William J. Lynn and the Rev. James J. Brennan.

"Stuck" was the word used by Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina. Wary of reading back days of testimony, she told prosecutors and defense lawyers that she might tell the panel of seven men and five women to focus just on the areas "where they are stuck" when they resume deliberations Thursday.

The jurors' latest request came hours after Sarmina said she saw no reason to worry about the length of deliberations, and after Brennan's lawyer had erupted in court, frustrated over what has become a parade of notes and questions but no verdict.

"With all due respect, how many times are we going to try this case?" the lawyer, William J. Brennan, asked the judge when the jurors were out of the room. "We did our job. This team [the prosecutors] did their job. You did your job. Now it's time for them to do their job."

His client, who is unrelated, is accused of trying to rape a 14-year-old boy in 1996, and endangering other unnamed children when he served as a parish priest in the ensuing years. Lynn, the former secretary for clergy for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, faces endangerment charges for ignoring warning signs that allegedly emerged before prosecutors say Brennan and another priest, Edward Avery, each abused a boy.

Both accusers testified during the trial. Avery's victim was on the stand barely two hours.

Brennan's accuser, a 30-year-old Bucks County man, was there for nearly two days in early April. He testified that Brennan showed him online pornography, invited him to masturbate, then pressed his private parts against him as they shared a bed.

Nearly all of the requests from the jury room on Monday and Tuesday appeared to focus on that allegation.

The jurors wanted to again hear what the priest told a private investigator hired by the archdiocese in 2006, and what he testified during a confidential church trial on the claims two years later.

On Tuesday, Sarmina took the unusual step of letting jurors also hear what Brennan's accuser told that tribunal. Jurors had heard only brief excerpts of that testimony during the criminal trial, but prosecutors had introduced the full transcript with their trial exhibits.

Brennan's lawyer was incensed. He argued that the jurors were essentially getting a look at new evidence, and that it was akin to letting the priest's accuser testify again without facing cross-examination. He had grilled the man back in April, asserting that the accuser concocted the complaint to win a payout from the church.

"They [the jurors] have to do their job, they have to rely on their recollection," William Brennan told the judge. "We can't make a decision for them."

Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington countered that the panel had a right to hear the testimony because it had been admitted as evidence, even if it wasn't read. The judge adopted that argument.

The transcript showed that the young man's testimony at the canonical trial mirrored, sometimes verbatim, what he had told the Common Pleas Court jurors about the incident.

But some details were new. Brennan had claimed that he only reluctantly let the teen access online porn because the boy threatened to throw the computer out a second-floor window.

According to the transcript read to jurors, the young man told the church tribunal that he didn't have access to the Internet at home and didn't know how to access online pornography. He testified that Brennan did all the work. The priest sat at the computer, entered a password and navigated online to get to pages with X-rated photos and online sex chat.

"I never touched the keys," the man said.

Jurors also heard testimony that highlighted apparent conflicts in Brennan's account of that night.

Brennan told the archdiocese's private investigator, former FBI agent Jack Rossiter, that he wanted to sleep on the floor but that his 14-year-old guest insisted he share the king-size bed, according to Rossiter's report. Three years later, Brennan told the church tribunal that he was the one who proposed sleeping in the same bed.

Jurors were also reminded that Brennan first told Rossiter that he had let a male cousin move in with him when he was a faculty member at Cardinal O'Hara High School in the 1990s. When the agent pressed, the reports showed, Brennan acknowledged his boarder wasn't a cousin, but a recent O'Hara grad that he considered to be as close as family.

It was unclear if the jurors got the answers they wanted from the testimony. A few appeared to lean forward in their seats as the information was read aloud. Others seemed less interested; one man struggled to stay awake.

After it ended, and they had filed to their deliberation room, the priest stood at the defense table and trudged toward the back of the courtroom.

As others in the room buzzed about the new testimony they just heard, Brennan sat by himself in the last row. He folded his arms, then unfolded them and dropped his face into his hands.

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

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