NBCPhiladelphia.com - Deanna Durante, John Marcucci
Three priests, an ex-priest and a former catholic school teacher appeared in court Monday. This follows the suspension of 21 priests in the Philadelphia Archdiocese last week as part of the investigation into sex abuse in the church.
Monsignor William Lynn entered a Philadelphia courtroom Monday as the only Roman Catholic church official ever charged with endangering children for allegedly transferring priest-predators to unsuspecting U.S. parishes.
His two veteran criminal lawyers stood ready to knock down the charge. They argue that Lynn was never legally responsible for any individual child.
But their hope of having the case dropped early on will have to wait, as procedural matters took up the hour-long court hearing. Lynn and his four co-defendants -- including a priest, an ex-priest and a former Catholic school teacher charged with raping the same boy in the 1990s -- must instead return to court March 25.
Prosecutors who compiled a 124-page grand jury report challenge Lynn's demand for a preliminary hearing to show probable cause. They believe the report contains all the evidence required. But Lynn's lawyers are pushing for the hearing.
“We'd get to see evidence, of course. But, more importantly, what we'd get is an opportunity to find out what the commonwealth's theory is on our client endangering the welfare of a child. It's a stretch,” lawyer Thomas Bergstrom said.
Bergstrom, a dean of Philadelphia's criminal defense bar, confirmed that the archdiocese is paying for him and co-counsel Jeffrey M. Lindy to defend Lynn.
Lynn, 60, served as secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004 under former Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua. He has recently served as pastor of St. Joseph, a large parish in the sprawling suburb of Downingtown.
“We love you! We love you!” a parishioner cried out to Lynn in the courtroom. She declined to give her name.
The grand jury investigated child sexual abuse that allegedly occurred from 1996 to 2000 and was reported within a newly expanded time limit for such victims in Pennsylvania to come forward. A 2005 grand jury had been unable to press criminal charges because of the previous deadlines.
Two priests -- 64-year-old Charles Engelhardt and 47-year-old James Brennan -- along with 68-year-old former priest Edward Avery and 48-year-old teacher Bernard Shero are charged with rape and related crimes.
Brennan's lawyer, A. Charles Peruto Jr., told the judge Monday that he hopes the archdiocese will also pay Brennan's legal bills if his client is acquitted. Brennan, who was removed from any public duties as a priest in about 2006, continues to get a small monthly stipend from the archdiocese, Peruto said.
Judge Renee Cardwell-Hughes berated Brennan for pleading poverty earlier and ordered him to repay the cost of a court-appointed lawyer who represented him at two grand jury appearances. However, Peruto said Brennan's brother had stepped in after the charges were filed to help foot the legal bill.
Cardwell-Hughes also suggested that Brennan reconsider his plan to ally with the archdiocese, since he would not be in a position to strike a deal with prosecutors and share what he knows about his co-defendants.
“It's a huge risk to say `I'm going to take these lawyers that I cannot afford because they're going to get me (found) not guilty, and the archdiocese is going to reimburse us,''' the judge said.
Brennan is charged with raping a 14-year-old boy. Peruto argued that the alleged crime occurred in Chester County, and that city prosecutors therefore lack jurisdiction to pursue it. In response, the prosecutors plan to add conspiracy counts to the charges announced Feb. 10.
“It was a conspiracy of silence to ensure the church's reputation and to avoid scandal,” Assistant District Attorney Evangelia Manos said after the hearing. “We also believe that the conspiracy extends to the individual priests. In this case, Fr. Avery and Fr. Brennan both knew this was the standard operating procedure. And knew that they could do what they wanted and essentially just be assigned to another school.”
The conspiracy charge, the venue challenge and other issues will also be heard at the March 25 hearing.
Given the legal firepower evident on both sides Monday, any trial in the case appears a long way off.
Still, clergy abuse victims called the day momentous.
“We feel this is an especially important moment,” said Barbara Dorris, outreach director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, “because for the first time, a church official who shielded, hid and protected molesters is going to be held accountable for his actions.”