Judge dismisses most serious charges against priest in abuse case

The Rev. Andrew McCormick
The Rev. Andrew McCormick
Posted: August 17, 2012

A municipal judge stunned Philadelphia prosecutors today when she threw out the most serious charges against a former Roman Catholic pastor accused of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old Philadelphia altar boy in 1997.

Judge Karen Simmons ruled after the alleged victim testified that the Rev. Andrew McCormick led him to his rectory bedroom in the city's Bridesburg section one evening in 1997, stripped to his boxers, straddled the altar boy and tried to force him to perform oral sex.

McCormick's lawyer, William J. Brennan, argued that the allegations didn't justify felony sexual assault and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse charges because there was "absolutely no evidence" of clear penetration, as he said the law requires.

Simmons agreed - and dismissed those counts.

The judge left intact misdemeanor charges of indecent assault, child endangerment and corruption of minors against McCormick.

Minutes after the ruling, prosecutors scrambled to repair the case.

Assistant District Attorney Jim Carpenter, who heads the the office's Family Violence Unit, rushed back to the courtroom with Assistant District Attorney Jack O'Neill to again plead their case that the felony statutes cover conduct like the accuser described.

After an exchange that started cordial but grew testy, Simmons would not let them amend the charges.

"I heard the facts, I am familiar with the law," she said.

Prosecutors said they would ask a Common Pleas Court judge to review and reverse the ruling, as soon as today.

   "The Commonwealth is very confident that all the felony charges will be reinstated," said Tasha Jamerson, a spokesman for District Attorney Seth Williams.

Still, the decision was an unexpected setback in a case that grew out of the wide-ranging grand jury investigation into clergy sex-abuse by Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests.

McCormick, 56, was one of two dozen clerics suspended last year while the archdiocese re-examined past abuse claims against them. Church officials acted after the grand jury claimed the archdiocese had left priests in ministry despite credible accusations of child-sex abuse.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput has since permanently removed seven of those priests from ministry, and restored six. Decisions are pending against nearly a dozen others.

McCormick, most recently pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Bridgeport, Montgomery County, has been the only one charged with a crime.

Church officials say those charges are unrelated to the past misconduct allegation they are reviewing. The accuser in the criminal case came forward last year in the wake of widespread publicity about the suspensions.

Prosecutors typically face a low evidence bar in preliminary hearings, enough to show the accusation is credible.

McCormick's accuser, now 24, testified that he was an altar boy at St. John Cantius in Bridesburg in 1997 when the priest invited him back to the rectory after he served a Sunday evening Mass.

According to the witness, McCormick fed him two cookies and a Dr Pepper soda, then guided him to the priest's upstairs bedroom.

He didn't resist.

"I was always a curious kid," said the witness, a slight man with light hair.

(The Inquirer does not publish the names of alleged sex-crime victims without their approval.)

There, he said, McCormick shed his clerical robe - one with 32 buttons, according to the witness - and was left standing in blue-plaid boxers. After touching and groping the boy, McCormick straddled him and twice thrust his penis against the boy's lips, he testified.

Then the priest ordered him to leave, he said.

McCormick, wearing a black suit and his white clerical collar, sat passively with his eyes down as his accuser testified.

His lawyer, Brennan, asked the former altar boy why he did not scream or try to leave during the alleged assault.

"As a 10-year-old child, I was in shock," the witness said.

After the hearing, Brennan would not say if the priest denies the allegation.

But the lawyer said he planned to challenge the accuser's credibility at trial. He noted that the man struggled to recall if the alleged attack occurred in early or late 1997 and continued to serve as an altar boy, including on occasions for McCormick, after the incident.

Brennan also questioned the accuser's decision to remain silent until 2011 - after a wave of new lawsuits against area priests and former Penn State coach Jerry Sandusky.

"It seems very opportunistic," he said.

The judge said her ruling was not a reflection of how believable she considered the witness, but instead her reading of the definition of the crime. "It's totally a legal issue . . . and a legal finding," Simmons said.

McCormick was living at his parents' Pottstown home when he was arrested. He remains free on bail.


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

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