By Maureen Dowd -
The district attorney is burning a eucalyptus-spearmint candle on his desk.
“I think the press looks down upon the D.A. drinking Jack Daniels during the day,” R. Seth Williams says with a broad smile, “so I light my little stress-relief candle.”
It’s understandable if the former altar boy at St. Carthage in West Philly needs to light a votive. The 44-year-old Catholic, who still attends Mass with his family at the same church, now called St. Cyprian, is the first U.S. prosecutor to charge a church official for a sickeningly commonplace sin: Endangering children whom the Roman Catholic Church was supposed to protect by shuffling pedophile priests to different parishes where they could find fresh prey.
Williams, the first African-American elected district attorney in Pennsylvania, was an orphan given up by his unwed mother. He was put into two foster homes before he was adopted at 20 months old by a Catholic family.
“I grew up treating the hierarchy of the church kind of like rock stars,” he said in his 18th floor aerie, where he keeps a small iron crucifix and a cross fashioned from Palm Sunday fronds. “If you’re going to meet the cardinal, you’re supposed to kiss the guy’s ring, all this stuff. But it is what it is. I wish I knew the Latin translation for that.
“There’s no get-out-of-jail-free card for raping, sodomizing, groping, doing anything wrong to kids.”
Msgr. William J. Lynn, who served from 1992 to 2004 as the secretary of clergy reviewing sexual abuse cases for then-Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, appeared in court Monday. He is charged with felonies for allegedly helping the cardinal cover up molesters and transferring them to other parishes.
“It was a conspiracy of silence to ensure the church’s reputation and to avoid scandal,” said Assistant District Attorney Evangelia Manos.
Monsignor Lynn, a round, ruddy man in black priest’s garb, sat silently in court behind his two lawyers — paid by the archdiocese — as a cheering squad of priests and parishioners watched.
Lynn’s co-defendants sat beside him: a rabbity-looking Rev. James Brennan, 47, charged with raping a 14-year-old boy named Mark in 1996 in his apartment; and the unholy alliance of a priest, the sepulchral Charles Engelhardt, 64, a defrocked priest, Edward Avery, 68, and a former Catholic schoolteacher, Bernard Shero, 48 — all charged with raping or sodomizing the same 10-year-old altar boy 12 years ago.
Lynn’s lawyer, Thomas Bergstrom, told reporters that the charges against his client were “a stretch” and that he was pleading not guilty.
And Richard DeSipio, one of Brennan’s lawyers, went on the attack against his client’s accuser, now 29. “Their witness is in prison in Bucks County for stealing his sister’s credit card and using it,” DeSipio told Mensah Dean of The Philadelphia Daily News. “He’s a convicted liar.”
On a local radio show on Tuesday, Brennan — a priest suspended by the church in 2006 — said he was uninterested in a plea deal, and his lawyer continued to paint the accuser as troubled.
Even with a global scandal that never seems to stop disgorging disgusting stories, the Philadelphia grand jury report is especially sordid.
It tells the story of a fifth-grade altar boy at St. Jerome School given the pseudonym Billy. Father Engelhardt plied him with sacramental wine and pulled pornographic magazines out of a bag in the sacristy and told the child it was time “to become a man,” the report says.
A week later, after Billy served an early Mass, the report states that Engelhardt instructed him to take off his clothes and perform oral sex on him. Then the priest told the boy he was “dismissed.”
“After that, Billy was in effect passed around to Engelhardt’s colleagues,” the report says. “Father Edward Avery undressed with the boy, told him that God loved him,” and then had him perform sex. “Next was the turn of Bernard Shero, a teacher in the school. Shero offered Billy a ride home but instead stopped at a park, told Billy they were ‘going to have some fun,’ took off the boy’s clothes, orally and anally raped him and then made him walk the rest of the way home.”
Billy fell apart and turned to heroin.
The report says Brennan knew Mark from the time he was 9. When he was 14, the priest arranged with Mark’s mother for a sleepover. “Brennan showed him pornographic pictures on his computer, bragged about his penis size and insisted that Mark sleep together with him in his bed.” Then the priest raped him as he cried, according to the report.
Mark also fell apart and attempted suicide.
Out of the church’s many unpleasant confrontations with modernity, this is the starkest. It’s tragically past time to send the message that priests can’t do anything they want and hide their sins behind special privilege.
In Seth Williams’s city, the law sees no collars, except the ones put on criminals.