Former parish priest James Brennan to be retried on sex-abuse charges

James J. Brennan (right) with his lawyer William Brennan.
James J. Brennan (right) with his lawyer William Brennan. (Staff)
Posted: July 25, 2012

Philadelphia prosecutors said Monday that they planned to retry James J. Brennan, the former Archdiocese of Philadelphia parish priest accused of trying to rape a boy, 14, in 1996.

"James Brennan used his position as a priest to prey upon and victimize this young man," District Attorney Seth Williams said. "It is extremely important that Brennan be held accountable for his crime, not just for his victim, but for all victims of sexual abuse."

Brennan, 48, was one of two defendants in the unprecedented trial about clergy-sex abuse in the archdiocese.

Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina declared a mistrial in Brennan's case when jurors deliberated 13 days, but couldn't reach verdicts on attempted rape and endangerment charges against him.

Defense lawyer William J. Brennan said he and his client were disappointed with the decision for another trial, particularly after so much time and effort had been spent on the first one. James Brennan was initially charged in February 2011.

"It's puzzling to me that the commonwealth feels that there is a need to go forward," said his lawyer, who is unrelated to the client.

James Brennan seemed at times a footnote in the landmark case, because district attorneys spent most of the three-month trial presenting evidence against his codefendant, Msgr. William J. Lynn.

Lynn, the former secretary for clergy to Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, was convicted of a single count of child endangerment. He faces sentencing Tuesday.

The two days that Brennan's accuser testified were among the most explosive at the trial.

Brennan had become friendly with the boy and his family in the early 1990s, when the priest was an assistant pastor at St. Andrew Church in Newtown, Bucks County.

The alleged victim, now 30, battled with Brennan's lawyer, broke down on the stand, and slung accusations at the defendant, a priest he said he once admired like an uncle.

The accuser said that, during an overnight visit to the Brennan's apartment in 1996, the priest showed him online pornography, masturbated in front of him, talked about sex, and shared a bed with him. He said he was terrified and forever traumatized as Brennan, wearing boxer shorts, pulled him close in bed and pressed his private parts against the boy.

William Brennan, the lawyer, accused the witness of concocting the claim in a bid to win a payout from the church and to excuse a decade of drug-use and petty crime. In court papers, he called the priest's accuser "a serial confabulator" whose criminal record included making false statements to police.

One juror, Taleah Grimmage, said in an interview after the trial that the panel was evenly split over whether Brennan endangered the 14-year-old and, by extension, other minors during his tenure as a parish priest.

All but one juror agreed that prosecutors did not prove Brennan was guilty of attempted rape, she said, at least as the crime had been defined for them.

"We went around the room, and we said, I wish it was groping, it was molesting, I wish it was something else," Grimmage told The Inquirer last week.

According to William Brennan, the commonwealth can't alter the charges, but will have to retry his client on the identical charges.

This time, the trial should take a week or less, he said, because jurors won't have to sit through decades of clergy-sex-abuse allegations, as they did in Lynn's case.

"I think we were unfairly hampered by having to be tried with the codefendant," William Brennan said.

James Brennan never took the witness stand at his trial, but jurors heard testimony that he and his accuser gave during a 2008 confidential church proceeding on the accusations.

The outcome of that canonical trial has not been made public. Court records that became available after the criminal trial suggest that the church has ordered Brennan to stop calling himself or representing himself as a priest.

The judge scheduled an Aug. 14 status conference to discuss potential trial dates. Sarmina, who typically hears homicide cases, said she was unsure if she would preside at the retrial.

Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington said he would not be available for a trial until February.


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

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