The past is relevant, says judge in priest case
A complete picture.
That’s what a judge wants jurors to get as they decide the fate of two priests and an ex-priest in a child molestation trial due to start in late March.
Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina ruled Monday that records of how the city’s Roman Catholic archdiocese investigated complaints of sexual abuse of minors could be used in evidence in the trial of former priest Edward Avery, the Rev. James Brennan and Monsignor William Lynn.
Over three court sessions last month, prosecutors related the records of Brennan and Avery’s alleged “prior bad acts” as well as those of more than 20 other priests. Assistant district attorneys took turns offering the court the often-lurid details found in the archdiocese’s own records. They claimed the church moved those priests from parish to parish without reporting them to police. Sarmina said she will allow all but six of those case histories as evidence during the trial.
Although Avery and Brennan are facing trial on charges they each molested a boy, the archdiocese had files of complaints against the men.
Sarmina said Monday that jurors in some cases should be given full pictures of the past behavior of defendants. That is particularly true in child molestation cases, she said.
“The evidence is all necessary,” she said.
Avery’s and Brennan’s archdiocesan case histories are important to prosecutors’ case against Lynn, who they said investigated complaints against the men. Lynn, secretary for clergy under Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua from 1992 to 2004, is not charged with molesting minors, but with endangering children for allegedly making Avery and Brennan’s actions possible. His “willful blindness,” one assistant district attorney said last month, resulted in more children being molested.
Lynn, Brennan and Avery all have pleaded not guilty to charges that include conspiracy. They were arrested in February 2011 along with Rev. Charles Engelhardt, an Oblate of St. Francis DeSales, and former Catholic school teacher Bernard Shero. Engelhardt and Shero also have pleaded not guilty. They will be tried in September.
Sarmina said she would give jurors cautionary instructions about what evidence applies to the individual defendants. But lawyer William Brennan, who represents the Rev. Brennan, said case histories of other priests accused of sexually abusing minors would taint his client’s case.
“Cautionary instruction is about as useful as an 8-track tape,” he told the judge.
The attorney said he will argue to sever his client’s trial from that of the other defendants. The five men arrested last year after a grand jury released its findings all were set to be tried together, but Shero’s and then Engelhardt’s lawyers argued for them to be tried later. Those arguments were at first unsuccessful, but eventually prevailed.
After the judge ruled on what evidence she would admit, Jeffrey Lindy, one of Lynn’s attorneys, told the court that he had been informed that the archdiocese had answered a subpoena last week by supplying about 22,000 pages of documents.
“Why is this evidence just coming in now?” he asked Sarmina. Lindy suggested that defense attorneys and prosecutors get together to decide if the March 26 trial date remains realistic given the rockslide of documents that came in on Feb. 3.
“It’s overwhelming,” he said, adding, however, that the documents had to be examined because they might contain material beneficial to his client.
Jury selection is expected to begin this month and take a month to complete. Attorneys and Sarmina met in court last week to learn which questions they may ask prospective jurors.
In August, when the five defendants were slated to be tried together, Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington said he expected to call between 65 and 75 witnesses and that the trial would last four months.
On Jan. 30, Sarmina ruled Bevilacqua, who was Lynn’s boss, was a competent witness and could be called to testify. The 88-year-old retired archbishop died in his sleep Jan. 31. ••
Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or email@example.com