As the prosecution rested its case, Judge M. Teresa Sarmina dismissed conspiracy charges against the two Catholic cleric defendants, Msgr. William J. Lynn and Rev. James J. Brennan.
Sarmina's ruling was important, but most journalists buried this episode in their coverage of the trial, giving the ruling only a passing mention.
The media takes a side
For over a year, journalists fell over themselves in trumpeting the alarming claims that Philadelphia Church officials actually intended that children be abused. Now, after nearly two months of trial testimony, it turns out that the prosecution's outlandish accusations were so ridiculous and baseless that even Judge Sarmina – who has exhibited dubious impartiality during the trial – felt compelled to grant the defense's request to acquit the two clerics of the wild charges.
Even Max Kennerly, a Pennsylvania contingency lawyer blogging at the Philadelphia Priest Abuse Trial Blog, has admitted, "[T]he conspiracy charge was plainly difficult to prove from the onset."
But did the media's coverage in the past year ever reflect any doubt that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia committed a deliberate conspiracy? No. Not at all. The media never even questioned the flimsiness of the prosecution's wild claim. Journalists like the Philadelphia Inquirer's John P. Martin and the Associated Press' Maryclaire Dale have uncritically echoed the prosecution's talking points for months.
(By the way, this is not the first time that the press has ignored or downplayed the fact that claims from the prosecution later turned out to be unfounded. At the start of the trial a couple of months back, the media did not give much attention to the fact that the prosecution quietly changed the criminal charges against Fr. James Brennan. While last years's stunning grand jury report contained a graphic and stomach-turning account of an all-night rape of a 14-year-old by the cleric, the prosecution has essentially admitted that this passage was a work of fiction. The prosecution reduced the charges against Brennan to attempted rape, a stark difference.)
The road ahead
By granting the defense's request to dismiss the conspiracy charges, Judge Sarmina not only did the defense a favor, but she also may have done one for the prosecution as well by having them avoid potential embarrassment of failed verdicts. The prosecution faces much greater chances of success with its other charges.
How will the media report the clerics' defense in the next couple weeks? Both Msgr. Lynn and Rev. Brennan face serious charges that may result in lengthy jail time. Msgr. Lynn is still battling charges of endangering the welfare of children by placing suspected clerics into parishes; he also still faces a conspiracy charge in relation to a former priest (Ed Avery) who pleaded guilty to abuse shortly after the trial began.
Fr. Brennan still faces charges of child endangerment, corruption of a minor, and attempted rape.