By Ralph Cipriano
In her opening statement to the jury, Assistant District Attorney Kristen Kemp accused "Father Andy" McCormick of taking some altar boys to see an R-rated movie.
Kemp told the jury that when the priest took the altar boys to see What Lies Beneath, he was too embarrassed to wear his Roman collar out in public, so he went to the movie theatre dressed in plainclothes.
Today in court, one of the former altar boys who went to see the film reprised that tale on the witness stand, saying it was one of the few times he'd ever seen Father Andy not dressed like a priest. Adam Visconto, now 27, said he was in seventh grade and presumably around 13 when he went to see the R-rated movie with Father Andy. The implication was the priest, wearing a polo shirt and pants, had snuck the altar boys in to a see a movie that according to its rating required kids under 17 to be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
But William J. Brennan, McCormick's defense lawyer, brought to the courtroom a DVD copy of the 2000 supernatural suspense thriller starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pheiffer. Brennan asked the former altar boy to read the fine print on back of the box. Instead of an R-rating, the movie was rated PG-13, meaning parents were "strongly cautioned" to consider whether kids under 13 should see the movie.
"That's OK, it was a long time ago," Brennan told Visconto, who was staring at the box. Meanwhile, a stunned assistant district attorney asked for a recess so she could look up the movie's rating on her iPhone. After the jury left the courtroom, and Kemp checked her phone, she had to admit she and the witness had gotten it wrong; Father Andy had taken the kids to see a movie rated PG-13, not R.
It was one of those embarrassing screw-ups that lawyers hate to see happen in court. Sure it was a small and arguably insignificant detail, but it was a screw-up nonetheless, and certainly an overreach by the prosecutor in her opening statement. There was no excuse down at the district attorney's office for somebody not checking out that movie rating the way Brennan did. It would have taken less than a second to find the movie's rating on a Google search.
Kemp tried to repair the damage by asking Visconto if the movie contained sex scenes and profanity [yes] and whether the priest had checked with Visconto's mother beforehand [no] about whether he could go to see the movie.
But in a case that until today was going all the prosecution's way, you have to wonder whether the jury was left wondering what else the district attorney's office may have gotten wrong. The screw-up over the movie rating also happened on a day when a few other balls bounced the defense's way.
The first witness who testified today was Kathleen Visconto, a mother of four from Bridesburg who was also a member of Father Andy's former Polish parish at St. John Cantius.
Visconto told the jury about how Father Andy ruffled her feathers when he wanted to take her teenage altar boy son to Poland without her. She was perturbed that she first heard about the proposed foreign adventure from her son, and not from Father Andy.
She said she told the priest "There's no way that my son was gong that far and for that long without me being there."
So the priest went to Poland with some other altar boys, but not her son, Visconto testified. She told the jury she advised her son to not be "as close to Father Andy as he was."
She said the priest, who was in charge of the altar boys, was always taking them somewhere without telling parents. To fast food joints for hamburgers. To the St. Jude's religious store for artifacts. To other old-school churches where they said the Mass in Latin. And to fields where they could pick dandelions so the priest could make dandelion wine.
Visconto told the jury when she confronted Father Andy about his relationship with her son, he was "taken aback that I would question him ... that I would want to know where [my son] was and that he was with Father Andy and I should trust him."
She said the last time her son Adam saw the priest, he came back "white as a ghost."
By that time, Visconto had told Father Andy to stay away from her son. Father Andy had moved on to another parish, but he didn't listen to Visconto. Instead, he sent a Mass card to the boy, as well as a statute of the Blessed Virgin.
Father Andy's last transgression happened when he came back to St. John Cantius for the funeral of a monsignor who used to be the pastor at St. John's. After Mass, Father Andy asked Adam Visconto and another altar boy to meet him in the basement of the church.
Visconto said she told her son not to go. She reported the incident to the pastor of St. John's. She told the jury she blamed Father Andy for her son's loss of interest in the priesthood. Her son had talked about becoming a priest, she said, but after his experiences with Father Andy, Adam Visconto changed his career plans.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Brennan got Visconto to agree that she was the type of parent who wouldn't let her teenage son take a foreign trip alone with anybody, whether it was Father Andy, Pope Francis, or President Obama.
Next, Adam Visconto took the stand to speak for himself.
When he first became an altar boy, at 9 years old, Visconto said he looked up to Father Andy, who was always dressed in his black cassock, black cape and black beretta.
"He was a priest of the people," Visconto told the jury. "He took an interest in my interest in deepening my Catholic faith."
But by the time he was between 12 and 14, Visconto said that "proximity issues" had arisen with Father Andy. The priest would sometimes put his arm around the altar boy when they were sitting together in the rectory. When the altar boys started talking about girls, Father Andy would "jokingly get involved in those conversations."
As a teenager, "I wanted nothing to do with him," Visconto said of Father Andy.
Father Andy was crushed. After he left the parish, he sent Visconto a Mass card that said, "I apologize if I hurt you in any way. Good luck being Jesus in the living stations of the cross."
Later, Father Andy left a statue of the Blessed Virgin inside the Visconto's front door.
"I wanted nothing to do with it, and we disposed of it," Adam Visconto testified.
On cross-examination, defense attorney Brennan got Visconto to agree that in seventh grade, when he didn't want to hang out with Father Andy any more, he had just discovered girls.
"Yes, absolutely," Visconto enthusiastically replied.
Visconto told the jury on cross-examination that he was one of 50 to 60 altar boys who were supervised by Father Andy. And that he had never seen Father Andy inappropriately touch or sexually abuse any of those other altar boys.
Brennan asked Visconto to repeat what he had told a detective for the defense lawyer about Father Andy's effect on the altar boys. It sounded like a ringing endorsement:
"He grew my soul," Visconto had said about Father Andy. "He stuck to tradition. He was always looking out for us."
Next up on the witness stand was Daniel Levan, a Marine in uniform who was a former classmate of the alleged victim at Archbishop Ryan.
Levan testified that when he and the alleged victim were seniors, they went on a religious retreat. The alleged victim stunned Levan and other classmates by announcing "that he was molested as a child."
In earlier testimony, the alleged victim, now 27, and an out-of-the closet gay man, testified that when he was 10 years old, the priest allegedly took the boy up to his room in the rectory, locked the door, and tried to force his penis into the boy's mouth.
"He was a happy funny kind of kid," Levan recalled of the alleged victim. That's why classmates at the retreat were so stunned, nobody asked any follow-up questions.
On cross-examination, defense lawyer Brennan asked Levan did he tell you who did it?
Did he say when it happened?
Did he say where it happened?
Did he say how it happened?
Father Joseph Zingaro testified that he came to St. John Cantius just as Father Andy was getting transferred out. The two priests overlapped for 10 days at St. John's.
Father Zingaro said he was upset that Father Andy allowed altar boys to visit his room at the rectory.
"It's not appropriate," Father Zingaro said. "That's been ingrained since seminary."
He said that Father Andy allowed altar boys into his room on another occasion where he was changing into his priestly garb. The boys saw the priest in his t-shirt, but he had pants on.
"I don't think any person should be changing in front of" altar boys, Father Zingaro testified.
Father Zingaro said that Adam Visconto's mother complained to him about Father Andy's unwanted attention, and invitation to meet him in the church basement. Father Zingaro said he observed Father Andy interacting with Adam Visconto at the funeral of the monsignor.
"He [Visconto] didn't approach Father at all," Zingaro told the jury.
Was he afraid of Father Andy, the prosecutor asked.
"It seemed he was," Father Zingaro said.
The last witness of the day was Detective James Owens of the Special Victims Unit. He was the cop who investigated the alleged victim's story that Father Andy had attempted to stick his penis in the altar boy's mouth.
Owens acknowledged that the victim first told his story to his grandfather, a former detective for the Philadelphia Police Department and the Montgomery County District Attorney's office, where he investigated sex crimes against minors.
"I guess the police officer in him kicked in," Owens said of "Pop," the grandfather who took the alleged victim's statement.
The prosecutor asked the detective about another altar boy named Philip who had taken that trip to Poland with Father Andy, the trip that Adam Visconto's mother wouldn't let him go on.
Detective Owens said he spoke to Philip's mother, and she "acted like I was on some kind of witch hunt."
The prosecutor objected to the statement from her own witness, and the judge sustained the objection.
But the jury has to be wondering where Philip was, and what he has to say about Father Andy.
One thing's for sure; Philip didn't talk to Detective Owens.
The detective testified that he asked Philip's mother to pass on a message to Philip, but, "I never heard from him.
On cross-examination from defense attorney Richard Fuschino, Owens agreed that the only real evidence the prosecution has against the defendant is the alleged victim's statement about what allegedly transpired 17 years ago in the priest's bedroom when the victim was 10. He may have told some people he was molested along the way, but he never said who did it until three years ago, 14 years later, after he saw the priest's face on TV.
Father Andy may have "border issues" with altar boys. But the priest's defense lawyers have asserted that out of all the altar boys under the priest's supervision over the years, the alleged victim is the only one who has accused the 57-year-old Father Andy of molestation during his 30 years as a priest. The prosecution doesn't have anybody else, defense attorney Brennan said in his opening statement.
After the detective got through testifying, the prosecution rested.
Defense attorney Brennan asked the judge to toss one count against Father Andy of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a minor as unproven. Brennan said the alleged victim had testified that the priest had tried to stick his penis in the boy's mouth, but that the boy had clenched his teeth and turned his head away.
But the judge denied the motion, saying the alleged victim may have kept his teeth clenched, but the priest's penis allegedly went past the boys lips.
"There was penetration however slight," Judge Gwendolyn Bright said.
Tomorrow, the defense plans to present 8 or 9 character witnesses and 5-6 fact witnesses to rebut the prosecution.
"The wild card is whether the defendant testifies," Brennan told the judge.
Apparently, that call has not been made yet.
Closing statements are expected on Thursday, and then the case will go to the jury.