D.A. struggles to get church judge to testify at priest trial

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April 17, 2012

By Joseph A. Slobodzian and Michael Matza, INQUIRER STAFF WRITERS

  • Rev. James Brennan (right) arrives at the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia on Wednesday, April 4, 2012. He heard testimony from man accusing him of allegedly raping him as a young teen. (Alejandro A. Alvarez / Staff Photographer)

Rev. James Brennan (right) arrives at the Criminal Justice Center in Philadelphia…

Prosecutors in the landmark trial involving the Catholic church’s handling of allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests have been stymied in an attempt to compel the testimony of a church judge who participated in a previous canonical trial of the Rev. James J. Brennan.

“We are having a problem with a material witness petition in West Virginia,” Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington told Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina on Tuesday.

According to Blessington, an unnamed West Virginia judge has balked at honoring the district attorney’s “material witness petition” for Msgr. Michael Quirk, one of three church judges who heard the 2008 canonical trial of Brennan on child sex-abuse charges.

Brennan is a defendant in the Philadelphia criminal trial for the rape of a 14-year-old boy in 1996, an assault he has denied.

On trial with Brennan is Msgr. William J. Lynn, who as secretary for clergy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004 was responsible for investigation allegations of sexual abuse of minors by priests. Lynn is the first church official to be criminally charged with enabling or covering up the allegations.

The prosecution in the trial, now in its fourth week, maintains that the Philadelphia Catholic Church had a long-standing pattern of trying to avoid scandal at the expense of the priests’ past or future victims.

As part of the trial, Blessington has said he wants to present testimony from Quirk about Brennan’s testimony during the 2008 canonical trial.

Although the canonical trial was in Philadelphia, Quirk is assigned to the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., where he is judicial vicar and assistant to Bishop Michael J. Bransfield.

A week ago, prosecutors approached Sarmina at the end of a trial session and asked for her to write asking the West Virginia judge to honor the petition from a Pennsylvania Common Pleas Court.

Although state court subpoenas usually have no effect on other state’s courts, they are often honored as a matter of courtesy among judges.

But the West Virginia judge has apparently decided that Quirk’s testimony would not rise to the level of being a “material witness” and has not honored the petition.

Because all of the lawyers are barred from commenting to reporters by Sarmina’s gag order, it is difficult to discern whether there are deeper issues involved.

Blessington, for example, on Tuesday referred to Bransfield as “Quirk’s boss” as if the diocese there might be objecting to Quirk’s testimony. Blessington also hinted at a link between the Wheeling bishop and the Rev. Stanley Gana, one of the most notorious priests highlighted in two grand-jury investigations of clergy sex abuse within the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Gana was defrocked in 2006.

Blessington, however, did not elaborate. Bransfield, according to church biographical information, was from Philadelphia and, though 10 years apart in age, he and Gana were contemporaries in the seminary here and were ordained by the late Philadelphia Cardinal Krol.

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