Imagine a train uncoupling as it rumbles down the tracks.
That's what happened Thursday when Judge M. Teresa Sarmina tossed two charges of conspiracy to endanger the welfare of children that linked the two defendants, Father James J. Brennan and Msgr. William J. Lynn.
The judge made her surprise decision on the day the prosecution rested, after presenting eight weeks of testimony from some 48 witnesses and thousands of pages of exhibits. There's a gag order in the case that prevents lawyers on both sides from talking to the media. However, it wasn't hard to read the contrasting reactions.
Defense lawyers, the two defendants and their relatives were beaming, laughing and shaking hands as they filed out of the courtroom. Meanwhile, prosecutors said little and moved swiftly toward the elevators.
As detailed previously on this blog, the cases against Father Brennan and Monsignor Lynn have been moving in opposite directions. The case against Father Brennan has unraveled since the 2011 grand jury report, when an original charge of rape was downgraded to attempted rape; meanwhile the evidence against Msgr. Lynn has continued to pile up.
The only concern on the Father Brennan side of the case has been if the monsignor goes down hard, does he take the priest with him. Father Brennan's lawyer, William J. Brennan, was overheard laying some gallows humor on Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti as they left the courtroom Thursday.
"Hey pal, now I know how the first male passenger who got on the lifeboat on the Titanic felt," Brennan told the laughing prosecutor after the judge made her decision to drop one charge of conspiracy to endanger the welfare of children against Father Brennan, and another charge of conspiracy to endanger the welfare of children against Monsignor Lynn.
Father Brennan still faces charges of attempted rape and endangering the welfare of a child. Msgr. Lynn still faces charges of endangering the welfare of a child, as well as conspiracy to endanger the welfare of children in relation to the other original defendant in the case, Father Edward V. Avery. The former priest on the eve of trial pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child, conspiracy to endanger the welfare of a child, and involuntary deviant sexual intercourse with a 10-year-old boy.
The immediate fallout is that Msgr. Lynn, who was facing a prison sentence of 14 to 28 years if convicted on all the charges, now faces a prison term of 10 1/2 to 21 years. And Father Brennan, who was looking at 17 to 34 years if convicted on all the charges, is now looking at 13 1/2 to 27 years.
But the bottom line in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sex abuse trial is that the main link between the two defendants, namely the conspiracy charges, has been severed. Father Brennan's fate now rests on the credibility of a single accuser, 30-year-old Mark Bukowski, who has claimed that the priest attempted to rape him when he was 14 years old.
There is plenty of reasonable doubt in the case. Even the victim's mother has testified that "I will never really know what happened" between her son and Father Brennan.
To this courtroom observer, the conspiracy charges never made a lot of sense. The prosecution had charged that somehow, Msgr. Lynn had colluded with both Father Avery and Father Brennan to keep both priests in active ministry, so that they could harm children.
This conspiracy was alleged without any evidence ever being presented that the trio met somewhere to plan such an enterprise. After eight weeks of testimony, the more logical conspiracy to keep pervert priests in ministry and out of jail was between Msgr. Lynn and the superiors he reported to in the archdiocese chain of command, all the way up to the man at the top, Cardinal Bevilacqua.
The cardinal, however, died Jan. 31. Another one of Msgr. Lynn's bosses, Msgr. James E. Molloy, was found dead in 2006, of an apparent heart attack. Other bosses that Lynn reported to include Edward P. Cullen, now bishop emeritus of Allentown, Pa., and Joseph R. Cistone, bishop of Sagninaw, Mich. Neither Cullen or Cistone was called by the prosecution to testify in the case.
Cistone was mentioned in court Thursday by Thomas Bergstrom, a lawyer for Msgr. Lynn. Bergstrom asked Detective Joe Walsh if he knew where Cistone was.
"He's now a bishop," Walsh replied. "In Saginaw," the judge interjected.
"Did you drive out and talk to him?" Bergstrom asked. The prosecutor objected, and the judge sustained the objection.
Bergstrom asked Walsh if he had talked to Cullen as well, but the prosecutor objected again, and the judge sustained that objection as well.
When Molloy's name came up, Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington asked Walsh to tell the jury where he would have to go to interview Molloy.
"Msgr. Molloy is deceased," Detective Walsh said.
The defense went through its list of potential witnesses Thursday, and neither Cullen or Cistone was mentioned. So it appears that Lynn's two surviving former superiors will not have to go through the unpleasantness of testifying at this trial.
Jeff Lindy, another defense attorney for Msgr. Lynn, called the conspiracy charges in the case an "ill conceived prosecution," because no evidence had been presented to show the defendants ever conspired to endanger the welfare of a child.
In the case of Father Brennan, the defendant was on a leave of absence when he allegedly attempted to rape Mark Bukowski, Lindy told the jury. Both Lindy and defense attorney Brennan pointed out that prior to the attempted rape, there were scant warning signs that Father Brennan might pose a danger to children.
The priest had never been previously accused of abuse, and did not have a secret archive file. The only evidence presented in the case against Father Brennan was a report from a nun who complained that Father Brennan threw noisy parties at the rectory, and a high school administrator who complained that he had once seen Father Brennan wrestling with a student. Was that sufficient evidence for Msgr. Lynn to conclude that Father Brennan was a potential rapist?
Regarding Father Avery, Lynn had sent the priest shipped to a psychiatric hospital for nine months, where he was evaluated and found to not have a sexual disorder. The monsignor had also arranged weekly psychotherapy for Avery. The priest was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and lived in a rectory, where he was surrounded by five other priests who could an eye on him. So how was Lynn to know that the 10-year-old altar boy that Father Avery raped was in harm's way, Lindy asked.
When the case began eight weeks ago, defense attorney William J. Brennan told the jury in his opening statement that the vast majority of the evidence presented by prosecutors in the case would have nothing to do with his client. Brennan told the jury that if they looked over at the defense table during the trial, they might see him doing the crossword puzzle. Indeed, of the 48 witnesses in the case, only five had anything to say about Father Brennan.
After most witnesses testified, defense attorney Brennan had a habit of making the point to the jury that since none of the evidence presented by that witness concerned his client, Father James J. Brennan, he had no questions for the witness. The defense lawyer's mantra usually evoked chuckles and smiles from the jury, which served to reinforce his point.
Now, after eight weeks of testimony, the original idea of bundling Father Brennan and Msgr. Lynn together as defendants in the same case has been exposed as both faulty reasoning and a waste of time, as it's clear the two men had nothing to do with each other.
Defense attorney Brennan underscored that point when he told the judge about the time he pondered whether his client should cop a plea. "I couldn't even rat Msgr. Lynn out, because Father Brennan doesn't know anything," the defense lawyer told the judge.
Blessington, however, said a jury should decide if there was a conspiracy among the defendants, especially "after so many children were raped." Blessington asserted that Lynn was anxious to keep "wolves" like Avery and Brennan "in sheep's clothing" so that they could continue to prey on children.
"They didn't care about the children," Blessington told the judge, as a possible warm-up for a closing statement to the jury. "It was all about protecting Mother Church."
Blessington said that Lynn didn't listen to the doctors at St. John Vianney, the archdiocese clinic for treating sexually abusive priests, when they told him, "don't put him [Avery] near kids." Lynn served as a member of the board of directors at St. John Vianney, Blessington told the judge.
A 10-year-old got raped, Blessington said, "because Lynn didn't listen to his own doctors."
"You don't care about kids," Blessington shouted in the direction of Lynn. "You care about business."
"He does nothing," Blessington said, to make the wolves take off their sheep's clothing.