Tuesday, March 4, 2014

What Lies Beneath

By Ralph Cipriano
for Bigtrial.net

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?

"No, sir."

Did he say when it happened?

"No, sir."

Did he say where it happened?

"No, sir."

Did he say how it happened?

"No, sir."

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.


  1. A mother who would protect the church and its clergy to the very end. While her very own son Philip is also a victim of this animal.

    1. And you have first hand knowledge of this?

      Philip must be a close friend of yours if we are to think you have the right to state that.

    2. Conjecture - Dennis, pure conjecture.

    3. Dennis is to be pitied. He knows nothing about Philip or his mother and ascribes malice to a woman who, obviously knowing the goodness of Fr. Andy, detected a witch hunt carried on by an out of control DA. The fact that Dennis calls this priest an "animal" just confirms that he does not believe in a core tenet of American juris prudence: a man is innocent until proven guilty. The only thing this priest is guilty of is being too solicitous of the welfare of his young charges. God save us from priests who help grow people's souls and looks out for them.

    4. The DA needs a new script, not one piece of physical evidence (same as the Engelhardt & Shero trial), high school friends being recruited by the DA to suddenly have total recall of those 15 year old conversations (same as high school pot smoking friend of Danny Gallagher, L. Hernandez in the Engelhardt/Shero trial),

      To the defense attorney, William Brennan, one word of caution as you go on the defense today, doesn't matter if you have an impeccable 40+ year reputation as a priest and high school teacher such as Fr Engelhardt did, not a hint of misconduct during that timespan, literally dozens of character witnesses as well as many fact witnesses that absolutely refuted those series of accusations by Danny Gallagher in that courtroom last January, these juries are inclined to deem these priests as guilty before they ever step into that courtroom.

      May Fr McCormick's fate be judged by a jury who actually takes into account all of the testimony in this trial.

    5. Dennis Ecker you should be sued for slander. You cannot say that Philip is also a victim.

  2. Is it me or does this sound like a repeat of the billy doe, daniel Gallagher, trial?

    Here's my friend and his mom, here's my military friend. Seth would fail as a producer - same plot, different year. No oscar for originality from the DA's office....

    1. I think the key in all of these cases is having *mothers* testify.

      It plays very powerfully and emotionally with a jury.

  3. "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"

    Didn't 'Billy Doe' also attend Archbishop Ryan (before he was expelled, that is)?

  4. Boundary issues is the crux of the situation, not the alleged sexual assault. Depending how the defense performs today and Thursday before the case goes to the jury and depending whether or not the priest agrees to testify in his own defense, then the case will be decided.

    Notable is the screwup by the ADA on the movie's rating which does not look good on her. Plus no other altar boys have reported sexual assaults and inappropriate grooming witht he exception of the victim. The victim might have made assertions he was assaulted to a group of altar boys, but the odd thing is that none of them even bothered to report the alleged assault to authorities. This is puzzling as something like that would not stay quiet for long in a gathering of children.

    Bottom line - you cannot try someone on boundary issues in a court of criminal law unless you bring it up in civil court. Only criminal cases are tried in criminal court.

    Prediction - depending on defense's performance in spreading reasonable doubt on the minds of jurors today and Thursday and depending on how prosecutors handle the defense through rebuttals, the case can end up in an acquittal. Why? The jury will wonder if the alleged sexual assault ever happened as why would a child not complain to his parents what had happened and what would have Pops do once he heard from the parents? Pops would have been an police officer in taking down the victims statement and reporting it right away so that Fr. McCormick will be arrested pronto. The jury will wonder why this didn't happen at the time of the alleged assault. You cannot say you were sexually assaulted and get your family to support your allegations by parrotting the same thing you said.

    In the final analysis, judgment will be left to Chaput as the final arbitrator in McCormick's fitness to remain as a priest. Given the boundary issues and the poor judgment he showed in his handling of altar boys, Chaput will have him kicked out of the priesthood.

    1. James, you are so right-what a waste of taxpayers $$$$. Lies, drugs, specious testimony-the same old M.O.Why would the D.A. let this case go to trial? Oh..never mind.

      Wow! At this rate "Fr. O' Malley" (Bing Crosby) would have gone down for suggesting that anyone "Dial O for O' Malley!!!"

    2. Josie,

      Lets do this. I believe you think the abuse of children by your clergy members is an internal matter, and it should be handled by your church. Since the majority of the children harmed are your very own Roman Catholic children how about we let you handle the matter, remove any involvement of law enforcement to save tax dollar money.

      But, when these abused children grow up and decide to take matters into their own hands and serve their justice, you or your church leaders cannot pick up a phone and call the men and women in blue.

      However society does not think that way.

      Society protects you and others from your own Roman Catholic church.

      Seth Williams should be your hero.

    3. Seth williams a hero?

      Seth should lose his license to practice law with all the injustices he has done to the citizens of Philadelphia since he was elected.

  5. I hope this "man of God" does take the witness stand in his own defense. I am eager to hear his explanation of his 2011 suspension by the hierarchy of his "church" for another "misunderstanding" involving yet another innocent, who was/is also obviously lying, anti-Catholic, addicted to drugs, looking for a huge payday, doing the Devil's work...etc., etc., etc. I wonder how many "apologists" would let their ten or eleven year old child travel alone to Europe with this esteemed "man of God?" Any volunteers?

    1. If you read the fine print the 2011 suspension could have been the result of Sally Doe - "he never said who did it until three years ago, 14 years later, after he saw the priest's face on TV"

    2. Fine print... Sally Doe... Little Johnny Doe... yada, yada, yada... Let this "righteous man of God" take the stand so he can tell us all about his previous suspension. Let this "Godly man" regale us with the story of how yet another innocent lied and how the whole of Philadelphia conspired against him as he performed... "God's" work on the most vunerable members of the "flock." Who among the "apologists" will agree to let their young son (or daughter, if you insist) travel alone with this "saint" to Europe?

    3. if you read the fine print, sally doe went to the authorities 3 years ago which would have been around the same time that he was suspended.

      What classified information are you holding on to?

    4. I have always wondered what kind of parent can watch their kid get hooked on drugs-claim that they are not able to do anything, blaming someone else for the whole thing. Yes, we have an "anonymous" here that has done that repeatedly, never taking any responsibility himself as a parent.

  6. Suspension no doubt because of his inappropriate behavior bringing kids into rectory, his room, going on outings etc...Even if his intentions were innocent, completely stupid.

    Problem is just like Billy Doe, there is not one corroborating witness. Allegations come years later and from what appears to be a troubled man. I just can't see convicting a person based on such facts. Better a guilty man go free I'm afraid than an innocent man go to jail.

    Finally totally agree its insane to let your child go overseas, actually anywhere, with an adult by themselves. No grown man really wants to spend that much time with a child not his own.


    1. What did Philip do a great job of doing? Drinking a beer at the age of 13? What 13 year old wouldn't take a beer if asked?


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