Philly Abuse Trial Eye-Opener, Media Yawns

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Prosecution rests, Defense is next

You would never know it from the media coverage, but the defendants won a significant victory in the high-profile criminal abuse trial in Philadelphia last Thursday.

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.

Stay tuned.

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  1. Mike Fenske says:

    Nobody ever thought the bishops intended children to be abused.
    The bishops allowed the abuse of children to continue by protecting the reputation of, first, the Church and secondly the cleric involved; the victims meant and continue to mean nothing to them. The hierarchy, because of the complete lack of understanding of human sexuality and their isolated life style, are incapable of seeing sexual abuse anything other than a sin.

  2. Dan says:

    Mr. Pierre – I am really not sure why you keep defending the Church…it's cardinals, bishops and priests?? And yes the "good" priests too…you know the ones who look the other way and pretend there are no problems. They are following the example of their surperiors of course. 
    i understand people who love their Faith and their Church. I really do. But why so much energy to protect those who seem "hell bent" on destroying the Church. That is what this website should be going after. That is the REAL problem for the Church.
    If half the energy was used to really unearth the Church's problems and all it's coverups and address them appropriately… perhaps you would be on to something…like a healthier Church with less problems.
    Then the media would not have that much to report about and they would probably just go away…

  3. Fitasafiddle says:

    The bishops actually cultivated an ignorance so that they would not have to face the consequences of allowing child raping clerics to roam from parish to parish. Then they used a calculated indifference toward the child victims of these pathetic criminals wearing roman collars. Now that they are being called to pay the piper they will turn on each other, showing their true natures.
    These bishops and their underlings are the anti- catholics in this mess they handed to us. Mr. Pierre is either wearing rose colored glasses or just likes to be on the side of the men from the palaces with all the loot.

  4. Publion says:

    A couple of thoughts come to me here.
    This site is reporting a verrrry interesting development in a court case. It is a development that – as it turns out – does not serve the purposes or causes of certain groups, but it is a most surely factual public development. And - I would add – a development that raises some significant questions about the prosecution of this case in the first place.
    Second, there is the question of just what this site – as best I can see – is 'defending'. I see it as defending due process of law against a rather large bunch of people who seem to be thinking ('feeling' would be more like it) that due process and accuracy of prosecution can go out the window if they happen to feel strongly enough about the case. This is a very serious infection for any democracy to face: this is stampede-justice and it has never ended well (and has indeed ended very badly in certain not so distant examples in world history).

    The 'protection' of the accused through the proper operation of due process in criminal trials is a fundamental American principle that cannot ever be sidestepped or overridden. Any person – including attorneys – who claim otherwise are leading everybody down a dangerous path indeed.
    The question of "intent" ("mens rea") is vital to the legal case, especially given the nature of the Charges the prosecution chose to bring. If that reality is beyond the ability of some people to grasp or beyond their wilingness to recognize, then their opinions have to be recognized for their limitations in this case and this trial. 
    Again, I have developed the strong impression that for certain people and groups this legal case is merely a pretext to act out their particular view of what they want everyone to believe. This is, for them, not a trial to find and prove facts, but simply to act-out a script that in some peoples' minds and opinion is already written. This trial – in their view – is for all practical purposes not only a 'show trial' (i.e. it is intended to send a message to anyone who sees it or hears of it) but is also – I don't apologize for the term – a 'soap opera', with a clear and guaranteed evil villain, a pure and helpless victim, and the Law not as seeker and trier of fact but as some sort of cartoon Avenger.
    This profound misconception will not and cannot work. Nor can it end well for anybody if it prevails.
    The prosecution – with the approbation and support of certain groups and persons – has chosen to resort to criminlal legal process. That criminal-law process is being carried out. It has – at this juncture, at least – taken a bounce that does not please those groups and persons. I don't see how reporting that fact can be characterized as merely 'defending' anybody or any thing.
    As somebody said on the Philadelphia trial site: when we initiate trial-process, especially criminal trial process, we approach the cage of Leviathan by setting the stakes: the deployment of the Sovereign police/coercive authority against the accused. If crimes may have been committed, then we have to approach that cage. But we can never do it hastily or blithely or callowly or under the delusion that the tiger of the Sovereign power can be loosed without creating dangerous consequences, consequences perhaps more damaging than the effects of the alleged crime(s).
    This is basic Civics. But basic Civics are always in play in legal trials. No Citizen can ever forget that fundamental reality, no matter how outrageous the allegations and Charges against the accused.
    I also point out that this trial revolves around two (or three – the case itself is a little confused) individuals; the verdict must be delivered as to the Charges against those specific accused. The verdict cannot be expected to deliver a judgment (although greatly desired by some) against any other persons or institutions not formally Charged in the case. I get the impression that for many persons and groups, this trial is supposed to be a 'show trial' in the more ominous and dangerous sense that it is supposed to 'prove' everything they have been thinking and want to think about much larger issues.
    The trial cannot be allowed to slide down that slope, no matter how much satisfaction it might bring to whatever persons or groups want it to jump down that slope.