By John t. Gillespie

Special to The CS&T

PHILADELPHIA- At times, the rancor in Courtroom 1007 of the Criminal Justice Building last Friday overshadowed the somber nature of the sex abuse case against a lay teacher, three priests and a former priest of the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

Common Pleas Court Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes ruled the case could go to trial and imposed a sweeping gag order until April 15 when the men are expected to formally plead not guilty.

But it was the air of confrontation and aggressive hostility in violation of normal courtroom decorum that dominated the proceedings.

During two hours of debate over defendants’ right to a preliminary hearing, conspiracy charges, anti-Catholicism and conflicts of interest, the polemics were heated. {{more}}

The judge accused defense attorneys of attacking her integrity, telling them a number of times to “shut up.”

The attorneys demanded a preliminary hearing for their clients to confront their accusers. Hughes said no, that the year-long grand jury had compiled sufficient evidence for the Commonwealth to move to trial without a preliminary hearing. The district attorney sought a “bypass,” which the judge granted.

“This is so patently unfair,” screamed defense attorney Michael McGovern, who added in a calmer voice, “I just want a preliminary hearing.”

“I know you do baby, but you’re not getting one,” Hughes said.

When McGovern cited as precedent a 2004 clergy sex abuse case that began with a preliminary hearing, the judge erupted, “Why should I care what happened in another case, at a different time, in a different place?”

When McGovern responded that defendants have “fundamental rights,” Hughes said she didn’t appreciate the “sarcasm.” “The Constitution,” she said, “does not guarantee a right to a preliminary hearing.”

“Well, snapdoodle!” she exclaimed when a defense lawyer challenged her on another occasion. “Shut up and sit down!”

When defense attorney Richard L. DiSipio yelled out that the district attorney’s office was “anti-Catholic” and had attacked him, Hughes shouted in reply, “Attacked you? You attacked me!”

When DiSipio persisted, Hughes threatened: “One more word and I will have you locked up and charged with contempt.”

All five defendants were in court. They included Father Charles Engelhardt, 64, former priest Edward Avery, 68, and Bernard Shero, 47, a former sixth grade teacher at St. Jerome’s School in Northeast Philadelphia. The three have been charged with raping and sexually assaulting a boy in the parish between 1998, when he was 10 years old, and 2000.

Another priest, Father James Brennan, 47, is charged with raping and sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy in 1996.

The fifth defendant, Msgr. William J. Lynn, 60, former Secretary of the Clergy, has been charged for allegedly failing to protect children from two of the alleged abusers. His lawyer, Thomas A. Bergstrom, requested a preliminary hearing to “test as soon as possible whether the charges … are legally valid.”

Msgr. Lynn is the only defendant whose legal costs are being borne by the Archdiocese since the charges against him are related to his official duties at the time. Hughes warned him that the arrangement posed a potential conflict of interest that could prejudice his defense and, if convicted, his appeal.

“You could go to jail,” she warned. “It may be in your best interest to provide testimony that is adverse to the Archdiocese … Your testimony could be detrimental to the organization that’s paying your lawyers.”

“I understand but I trust these two men,” Msgr. Lynn replied, referring to his attorneys. At another point he said he had “many people who have offered to pay for my legal support.”

The courtroom was packed with media, prompting the judge to impose the gag order.

“I don’t want tweets, I don’t want Facebook, I don’t want IMs (instant messages),” Hughes said.

“I don’t want any communication.”

“Does that include Chris Matthews (host of Hardball on MSNBC) and the New York Times?” asked defense attorney McGovern.

“I don’t want to see anyone on Chris Matthews,” said the judge.

John Gillespie is a freelance writer and member of St. Bridget Parish.