Prosecutors in the landmark trial of two priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia this week portrayed through witnesses an apparent longstanding pattern of archdiocesan officials failing to inform parishioners or parish pastors about priests assigned to their parish who had been accused of sexual misconduct or sexual abuse of children.
The court examined cases of priests previously mentioned in the grand jury reports of 2005 or 2011, including Fathers Francis X. Trauger, Raymond O. Leneweaver, Albert T. Kostelnick and Michael G. Murtha. Only the latter involved actions from 1995 onward. The others involved incidents from the late 1960s until 1991.
Msgr. William J. Lynn is charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of a child. The charges stem from his actions as the former archdiocesan secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2003 in which he was responsible for responding to the needs of priests and recommending to Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua their ministerial assignments in the Archdiocese.
Also standing trial is Father James J. Brennan, charged with attempted rape of a minor in 1996.
At the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia March 28, assistant district attorney Mark Cipolletti produced as a witness a young man who told how in 1991 he was stalked by a priest and led into an encounter at a Catholic high school that nearly resulted in sexual assault until discovered and broken up by a teacher.
The priest, Father Francis X. Trauger, allegedly noticed, followed and approached the 15-year-old student of then St. John Neumann High School in South Philadelphia in 1991.
The boy refused to state his name when asked, but the school jacket he was wearing gave the priest enough information to tell the boy, “Don’t worry, I will find you.”
It was later learned, the witness testified, that the priest used ruses to discover the boy’s identity, where he lived, his family members’ names, his mother’s appearance and his father’s occupation.
Eventually Father Trauger gained access to a locked room at the school. The encounter began with the priest discussing sexuality but led to him touching the boy and unzipping his pants before a teacher banged on the locked door and told Father Trauger to open it, after which the boy fled home.
The principal and vice principal of the school, both Norbertine order priests, met with the boy and his parents at their home to discuss the incident. The boy said he related many of the details, excluding how Father Trauger touched him, but not the full story until 1997, with his father.
The witness, now 36, said no archdiocesan administrator interviewed him about the incident until investigator Jack Rossiter met him in 2003. Notes of that meeting, which the young man only saw in recent weeks in preparation for his testimony at the trial, inaccurately recorded details of the interview, he testified.
It remained unclear at the trial whether the Office for Clergy, which Msgr. Lynn would not lead until a year later, informed administrators of the high school about alleged past sexually abusive behavior of Father Trauger that was noted in the 2005 grand jury report, nor whether they informed the Clergy Office about the alleged 1991 incident.
Msgr. Lynn’s defense attorney Thomas Bergstrom confirmed that the witness had never met or heard of Msgr. Lynn and that he did not become secretary for clergy until a year after the alleged incident.
Bergstrom addressed the court to question the “probative value” of the evidence presented, or why the cases of priests preceding Msgr. Lynn’s tenure at the Clergy Office were under examination at the trial. He contended the cases were irrelevant.
But Judge Teresa Sarmina said the cases were relevant because “when he (Msgr. Lynn) sees the same sorts of behaviors surface … his job calls him to be alerted to them. That is how that (evidence) ties into Avery and Brennan, and how the jury decides, not me. That is how the evidence ties into the case.”
Former priest Edward Avery pleaded guilty on March 23 to abusing a boy in the 1990s. His case and that of Father Brennan form the two charges of child endangerment against Msgr. Lynn.
As evidence regarding the actions of Father Murtha was presented, prosecutors placed actions surrounding responses to his behavior firmly within the timeframe of Msgr. Lynn’s tenure at the Clergy Office.
Four archdiocesan priests, all currently parish pastors, testified that when Father Murtha was assigned to their parish by the archbishop of the time, Cardinal Bevilacqua, they received little if any background on his prior behavior or therapeutic treatment.
Parishioners at all four parishes also never learned from the Archdiocese about Murtha’s alleged possession of pornographic magazines and videos. Nor did they learn about a letter he allegedly wrote but never delivered which graphically described sexual acts he wished to perform on a seventh grade boy in a Northeast Philadelphia parish grade school.
The behavior was first noticed by a fellow priest who was stationed with Murtha at the parish in 1995, who reported it to his superiors. After attempts at treatment for sexual addiction and support from archdiocesan priests and counselors, Father Murtha continued to be assigned to three more parishes.
The pastors continued to observe problem behavior and request that the Archdiocese transfer him and obtain psychiatric treatment and support for him.
Pastors of those parishes testified they were never informed of Murtha’s history of behavior, until discovering evidence on their own.
Under cross examination by Bergstrom, the pastors said they informed their superiors of Murtha’s behavior, which included flashes of anger and defiance of authority, and requested his reassignment. But they made no reports to civil authorities.
To prosecutors, evidence from the first week of the trial pointed toward a pattern of trying to hide the truth of sexual misconduct or abuse in the Church from parishioners.
To defense lawyers, the administrative actions revealed a clerical culture that favored sending information up a chain of command to Msgr. Lynn but ultimately above him to his superiors, and one of trying to obtain treatment and ongoing counseling support for a troubled priest.
Today, none of the priests mentioned as having allegations of abuse or misconduct are serving in priestly ministry in the Philadelphia Archdiocese.
Francis Trauger and Raymond Leneweaver were laicized — a Church law process that renders a priest or deacon as a lay person — in 2005. Father Kostelnick died in 2009.
Father Murtha is not listed on an archdiocesan web site among other laicized priests, nor among priests indicated as “pending” in the laicization process. That list includes Father James J. Brennan.
Landmark clergy sex abuse trial begins in Philadelphia
In a time to build, CatholicPhilly.com connects people and communities
As society emerges from the loss and separation of the pandemic, CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you join in our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community.
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103