Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Priest Seeks Spiritual Highs; Winds Up Singing White Christmas to Chickens

Father James J. Brennan dreamed of becoming a Trappist monk. He thought the monastic life would bring him closer to God as he meditated and prayed in solitude for hours on end.

But after he joined the Trappists in 2000, Father Brennan found the reality of the monastic life was far different then he had imagined. He was getting up at 3 a.m. to feed the chickens on the monks' organic  farm. The priest, a gifted singer who used to conduct church choirs, was reduced to serenading hens to the tune of White Christmas.

"I think too much of me is being wasted on chickens," he wrote Msgr. William J. Lynn in 2001, asking to come back to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

On Tuesday at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sex abuse trial, the prosecution had Detective James Dougherty spend several hours reading into the court record more than 60 formerly confidential records from Father Brennan's personnel files and the archdiocese's secret archive files.

Father Brennan is on trial for conspiracy to endanger the welfare of children, endangering the welfare of a child, and the attempted rape of a 14-year-old. Detective Dougherty was on the witness stand most of the day.

It was a curious exercise. There was talk of Father Brennan being abused as a child. There was a complaint from a nun that Father Brennan threw noisy parties in his rectory room. Another complaint was about Father Brennan having male roommates living at the rectory, without permission, one of whom supposedly was his brother, and another was either a cousin or a nephew.

When he returned from a leave of absence, Father Brennan compared himself to the Prodigal Son, but there were no confessions about abusing minors.

Instead, the priest's letters to Lynn and Cardinal Bevilacqua, and notes from his private meetings with the monsignor and cardinal told a story about a priest in search of spiritual highs, who at different turns in his ramblings, came off as immature, profound and downright goofy.

Father Brennan was like your kooky cousin or uncle, definitely a guy who marched to his own drummer as he hopped from one assignment to another, always thinking the spiritual grass was greener over in the next yard. A guy who talked over every step of his spiritual life with his therapist, his spiritual advisor, the abbot from the Trappist monastery, and anybody else he ran into. After a while, it sounded like navel gazing.

But the priest isn't on trial for being weird. He's accused of attempted rape, conspiracy, and endangering the welfare of a child. What the reading of these records did to help convict him on those charges was not readily apparent.

The prosecution, in the seventh week of presenting its case, appears to be playing the equivalent of a prevent defense. They are not taking many chances as they attempt to wind up their case in the next week or two. The strategy of playing it safe includes sticking to records, and evidence that is difficult to cross-examine, unlike, say, putting a witness on the stand who may be a juicy target for defense lawyers.

Consider last week, when Detective Joe Walsh spent several hours reading into the record the personnel records and secret archive files regarding Father Nicholas V. Cudemo, described to a grand jury by the late Msgr. James E. Molloy, former vicar for administration, as "one of the sickest individuals I ever knew."

Yet that quote was never read to the jury. Instead, while Walsh read the records, one of the courtroom spectators was a woman identified in the 2005 grand jury report as "Ruth." According to the grand jury report, Father Cudemo began sexually abusing Ruth when she was 10. When she got pregnant at 11, the priest paid for her to get an abortion.

Think Ruth could have told an interesting story on the witness stand? But the prosecution did not call her to testify, and they didn't tell the jury about Ruth getting pregnant, or her abortion, or those orgies that she claimed that Father Cudemo had forced her to participate in with other priests. Instead, the jury was given a G-rated summary of a X-rated story.

But back to Father Brennan's story. In 1995, he was cited for having permanent guests staying over in his guest room in the rectory without authorization. That resulted in a change of residences for Father Brennan. In 1995, Father Brennan requested a leave of absence from Msgr. Lynn.

Father Brennan told Lynn he "needs time to discern what is going on his life." Father Brennan also told the monsignor that he was dealing with the fallout from sexual and emotional abuse dating back to when he was four years old. The abuse resulted in the priest having trouble dealing with authority figures.

When he wrote to Cardinal Bevilacqua, seeking permission for a leave of absence, Father Brennan talked about the "inner turmoil" in his own life. He again brought up sexual abuse, according to the cardinal, which he said had "involved four young men."

Later, when he was questioned by Jack Rossiter, a former FBI agent working for the archdiocese, Father Brennan denied that he told the cardinal about any sexual abuse. But the records showed that Father Brennan also spoke on that same topic to Msgr. Lynn.

Father Brennan asked the cardinal for six months off, to be used for "therapy and discernment." He also said he wanted to live as a lay person.

Father Brennan's spiel did not impress his boss. The cardinal recorded in his own notes of the meeting, that he had "certain doubts in my mind about his [Father Brennan's] complete honesty."

Father Brennan told Msgr. Lynn that he was looking to start a business with his brother. In one phone conversation, Father Brennan told Lynn that he was aware of a different story making the rounds on the archdiocese rumor mill. The rumor was that the real reason Father Brennan was seeking a leave of absence was because he wanted to "shack up with a former student," Father Brennan told Lynn.

Brennan told the monsignor that he was upset by the rumors, but Lynn told Brennan not to worry, because rumors are not put into personnel files." In a meeting with the monsignor, Father Brennan also told Lynn that he needed time to process abuse that was "physical, emotional and sexual."

Father Brennan got the six months leave of absence. When it was up, he requested another six months from the cardinal. Returning to active ministry after just a six-month hiatus would be premature, Father Brennan wrote the cardinal. He had "many issues surfacing," Brennan told the cardinal, but he was also experiencing "the mysteries of faith and prayer in a whole new way."

Meanwhile, while living as a lay person, the priest ran up $15,000 in credit card debt. Father Brennan told the cardinal that he needed another six months of work to pay down that debt. When the monsignor said the archdiocese could loan him the money to pay off the debt, Father Brennan refused, saying it would be unfair to the archdiocese.

Lynn had doubts about what Brennan was up to. The priest "seems to be a man who is lost and wandering," and needs to "find his way back to the Lord," the monsignor wrote in his private files. Lynn's boss, Cardinal Bevilacqua, also had doubts. Father Brennan's reasons for delaying his return to ministry, the cardinal noted, appeared to have "little rational basis."

When his leave of absence was finally up, Father Brennan compared himself to the prodigal son, in a 1997 letter to Bevilacqua, referring to the biblical story about the man who squandered his fortune on harlots and riotous living. Father Brennan also wrote that he appreciated the way the cardinal welcomed him back without judging him. The priest said the cardinal's love for him was "Christ-like," and that he would "strive to follow" Bevilacqua's example of a "concerned father."

When he ran off a few years later to become a Trappist monk, with the cardinal's permission, at first, Father Brennan was estatic. He talked about how he could watch a couple of bald eagles frolic in the sky, and be reminded of Psalm 91, which compares trusting in God to the protection afforded by an eagle to her young: "He shall cover thee with his feathers; under his wings thou shall trust."

He could rhapsodize over finding a couple cartons of milk in the refrigerator. "His only goal," he told Lynn, was "to get to heaven."

He referred to the Trappist monastery in South Carolina as "the convergence point in my spiritual journey." But nine months later, Father Brennan ran into some problems. He was sick of the chores on the organic chicken farm, he wrote Msgr. Lynn. Father Brennan decided he had gifts that he needed to share with people. To stay on the chicken farm would amount to hiding "the Lord's gifts under a bushel basket," Brennan wrote

He was also tired of "coaxing eggs out of chickens." "Pardon my verbosity,"Father Brennan wrote the monsignor, but "at least you'll never be bored with me."

Father Brennan asked for, and got a return to the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in 2001. But by 2005, he was seeking greener pastures again, asking for another transfer out of the archdiocese, to a parish on the outer banks of North Carolina. Then came the charge of abuse, and Father Brennan the spiritual seeker wound up as a defendant in Courtroom 304.


  1. How is this trial being reported in other Philadelphia news media? Is there a lot of reaction from people locally? Is it a topic on local talk radio or in coffee shops and bars? Just curious...

  2. It is not getting a whole lot of air time. A couple of lines here and there, when they are particularly hellacious. (They have a LOT to choose from!) But all in all, this is not getting much, probably because it is such a long trial and the media may be worried about the perceived short attention span of it's audience. I was hoping that there would be much more made of it, but it seems to be pretty quite here. Thank God for Ralph's commentary. It is a shame it is not on the front page every day! When I talk to people and try to discuss it, they really don't know the half of what is going on. Most comments are very cynical a friend of mine said " OH, you know the Church is going to get away with everything, with all their money! They have never paid for any of their sins."

  3. Today is the first day I've actually had a glimmer of sympathy for Lynn. Reading all the pompous, self-involved posturing from this kook Brennan makes me feel sorry that Lynn had to spend so much of his time dealing with these damaged priests. If his days were spent dealing with people ranging from goofy narcissists like Brennan to outright sickos like Cudemo, I'm sorry for him. Still, my sympathy ends when I hear that he lied to a policewoman about the whereabouts of Cudemo, who was petitioning him at that very time for a transfer to the Orlando diocese. Lying and covering up seem to have been a regular pattern of life in the chancery office.

  4. "But the priest isn't on trial for being weird. He's accused of attempted rape, conspiracy, and endangering the welfare of a child. What the reading of these records did to help convict him on those charges was not readily apparent."

    The defendant is always on trial for being weird. He isn't going to testify. When the jury goes back to deliberate, if the can align the facts with something in their own life experiences, or in the realm of normality, then its harder to believe that the priest is a child rapist. if he seems like a normal guy, they are less likely to believe that he is a rapist. Jurors want rapist to be weird, strange, and acting beyond any reasonable realm of normalcy.

    But there is a risk. In the case of Michael Jackson, the weirdness allowed the jury to find explanations of why an adult would sleep with a child. He wasn't a rapist or a child molester, he is just eccentric. Everything Michael did was bizarre so its unfair to impose a normal framework on Michael.

    And it is certainly relevant to the conspiracy and child endangerment charge of Lynn with regard to Brennan. The warning bells were going off all over the ship but Lynn willfully ignored them. It also ties in with Picard. Picard is in the gulag for questioning the Cardinal, but Brennan's indiscretions and departures from normal clerical behavior is ignored. According to Picard, not only are rumors and reports of misbehavior by priests supposed to be ignored, but you can be disciplined for them--even if a priest is living with a child. Again, it is a narrative that a prosecution juror can identify with.


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