Priests trial continues, marked by tension, tears
A young man took the stand this week for two days and repeated numerous times that he had been allegedly abused by Father James J. Brennan, one of two priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on trial in the landmark case.
At turns both emotional in his testimony on April 4 and combative with Father Brennan’s defense lawyer, William Brennan, who is no relation to his client, the now 30-year-old witness described on April 4 an incident in 1996 that he called rape. But state prosecutors have charged the priest with attempted rape in the alleged incident.
Conviction or acquittal on the charge would be significant not only for Father Brennan, 48, but also because the case represents a charge of endangering the welfare of a child against former secretary for clergy of the Archdiocese, Msgr. William Lynn, 61.
As head of the office that dealt with troubled priests and recommended clergy assignments to the Archbishop of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004, he is the highest ranking Church official to be charged for crimes connected with the clergy sexual abuse crisis in the United States. Both priests remain free on bail and their priestly faculties to minister publicly are suspended.
Description of the alleged 1996 incident of abuse by Father Brennan led to bizarre courtroom drawings and detailed verbal depictions as the witness, who was 14 at the time, said the priest forced him to sleep in the same bed close together and pressed his private parts against the boy as they both slept in their underwear.
Defense lawyer Brennan attempted to show jurors that details of the witness’ story had changed over the years and he pointed to the man’s convictions for crimes including making false reports to police, theft and other offenses.
He cited the man’s testimony at various times that showed a lapse in memory due to his admitted drug and alcohol addictions and mental health problems. In 2008 for example, under oath at Father Brennan’s canonical trial as he fought the Church’s attempt to laicize him, the witness said he could not remember certain details of the alleged 1996 incident.
“My mind might have been scrambled. I don’t really remember too much of that time (1996),” he testified.
The lawyer Brennan hammered away at the witness who became increasingly agitated. He showed flashes of anger then, after hours of examination, broke down in tears. Presiding Judge Teresa Sarmina told him “don’t cry right now” and she, defense lawyer Brennan, assistant district attorney Cipolletti discussed whether to adjourn for the day.
As they did, the witness sat head cocked, mouth agape, and stunned as groans rose from the gallery of about 25 people. Sarmina then dismissed the jury and adjourned the tense session.
It resumed on Thursday, April 5 as the witness again took the stand and defense lawyer Brennan again tried to poke holes in the man’s story and his character.
For two more hours they sparred, with the lawyer even suggesting that the man concocted the story because he was “jealous of the time and attention” the priest had shown to his mother, which Brennan read from the man’s previous testimony.
Again the witness reacted angrily, shouting, “Are you kidding me?” He jabbed his finger in the air toward the priest and shouted, “That man molested me and he knows it. He knows it. He knows it. He knows it.”
Later in the day the trial resumed as prosecutors returned to a strategy of calling survivors of sexual abuse by priests to the stand in order to document the many cases of abuse in the Archdiocese over the years. They hoped to show decades-long patterns of administrative decisions that cast doubt on accusers’ stories and failure to act on abuse complaints.
Assistant DA Cipolletti called to the stand a 42-year-old man who as a police officer and detective for 18 years had once worked on child sexual abuse cases.
“One of the reasons it was difficult when you were talking to the kids was, not everyone believed them. It was difficult to see that,” he said, his voice choking with emotion.
It was only the first time his voice would choke. Over the next hour, the man recounted in a shaky voice his own experience of alleged sexual assault by a parish priest in 1981 when he was only 12 years old.
Father Francis X. Trauger, 67, who was laicized in 2005, had visited the school every day and played basketball with the boy, which even at a young age he found unusual.
Trauger took the boy to St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, the Philadelphia archdiocesan seminary, in late summer of 1981 where the priest allegedly molested him in the shower of a locker room. Several months later Trauger allegedly molested him again in the bed of a hotel room of a Pocono Mountain town.
Out of fear, the boy would later deny being molested by Trauger when questioned by his parents and by a priest friend of the family, Father John Schmeer. The latter priest taught at the now closed Bishop Kenrick High School in Norristown where the witness attended and resided at the witness’s parish.
Father Schmeer, 76, who also has a credible allegation of sexual abuse alleged against him, currently lives “a supervised life of prayer and penance,” according to a web site of the Philadelphia Archdiocese. “As of November 2004, (his) ministry has been permanently restricted and faculties to exercise ministry have been permanently withdrawn.”
He along with Trauger and scores of other priests were cited in the 2005 Grand Jury report on priestly sexual abuse in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
Testimony at the trial on April 5 showed that years later, in 2002, archdiocesan investigator Jack Rossiter showed the now young man a letter written by his parish pastor at the time of the alleged 1981 abuse incident referencing the boy and his parents, and a boy from another family in the parish concerning abuse by Trauger.
On March 28 at the trial, prosecutors produced a witness who claimed he had been molested by Trauger in 1991 in a South Philadelphia Catholic high school.
The trial will continue on Monday, April 9.