There have been a few notable developments in recent weeks in the Philadelphia clergy abuse cases.
1. The two current priests (Fr. Charles Engelhardt and Fr. James Brennan), former priest (Edward Avery), and former Catholic school teacher (Bernard Shero) have rejected a plea offer from Philadelphia prosecutors. Under the plea bargain, the men would have served from 7½ to 15 years in prison on various rape charges against them.
Is this plea offer significant? It's hard to tell, but it could be. The offer might indicate the beginning of some apprehensiveness on the part of prosecutors about the strength of their case. A trial is still months away.
Remember: The archdiocesan review board – partly composed of individuals with expertise in child abuse – already thoroughly examined these cases years ago, and it did not find one of the accusers to be credible. (One man accused three men (Fr. Engelhardt, Edward Avery, and Bernard Shero) of molesting and raping him; the board did not find this accuser to be credible. Another man accused Fr. Brennan, whom the panel recommended to the archdiocese to remove. (It did.))
We also know that the review board took a very aggressive approach in dealing with the cases it reviewed. In over 50 abuse cases it scrutinized, the board actually recommended the removal of the priest in most of them.
Are prosecutors starting to see serious problems with the credibility of one or more of the accusers and their accusations?
From the beginning, all of these men have staunchly maintained their innocence – although you would never know it from the media coverage. Fortunately, the clerics are represented by what appear to be excellent defense attorneys. For example, Michael McGovern, a very experienced defense lawyer who served many years in the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, is representing Fr. Charles Engelhardt. Richard L. DeSipio, the lawyer for Fr. James Brennan, has already gone on the offensive against his client's accuser.
2. Lawyers for Monsignor William Lynn have asked Judge Ransom to drop child endangerment charges against the cleric.
Msgr. Lynn is not charged with abuse of a child, but prosecutors are charging him with deliberately allowing priests to remain in ministry for the purpose of children being victimized.
It is a wild claim, indeed, and Msgr. Lynn's lawyer is claiming the charge "doesn't stand on any legal footing at all."
A hearing on this matter is scheduled for July.
3. Another significant development is that Renee Cardwell Hughes will not be the presiding judge at the future trial of these men.
Hughes announced at the end of April that she would be leaving the bench to take over as CEO of the American Red Cross Southeastern Pennsylvania Chapter.
Hughes herself made news with her incredibly antagonistic and alarming behavior during pre-trial hearings. She was simply unable to contain her venom for the clerics and the attorneys who represented them. (For details, see "Is the Fix In Against the Church in Philadelphia?", March 2011.)
In addition, an episode recently surfaced which confirmed the volatile manner of the jurist. In May, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recused Judge Hughes after she wrongfully ordered a court reporter to alter an official court transcript. The court's order shined a light on Hughes' dubious antics.
The absence of Renee Hughes is certainly good news for those who seek truth and justice for these cases. Maybe there is a more tempered and impartial observer in Judge Lillian Ransom, but observers shouldn't hold their breath.
Ransom recently sided with prosecutors in a June 6 hearing. She rejected a request from the attorney of Fr. Engelhardt to allow the priest to travel back-and-forth over the summer to visit relatives. "I'm not going to set it up so it's summer at the shore. Pick a weekend," ordered Ransom. "He can stay home in Philadelphia and make himself happy just like the rest of us." (Remember: In over four decades in ministry, Fr. Engelhardt never had any complaints against him until this one made by an accuser whom the review board did not find credible.)