Judge rules documents be public in priest abuse case

By Joseph A. Slobodzian (Philly.com)
January 16, 2016

A Philadelphia judge has ruled that documents and other evidence from pretrial proceedings in a lawsuit involving sexual abuse of minors by a Catholic priest will remain public before trial.

The two-paragraph ruling by Common Pleas Court Judge Mark I. Bernstein was a setback for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which had asked for an order barring public disclosure of the materials. The church has insisted on confidentiality as a condition for engaging in pretrial discovery with lawyers in suits seeking damages for being sexually molested by priests.

The ruling, filed Tuesday, was in a wrongful-death lawsuit filed against the church in November 2013 by Deborah McIlmail, whose son Sean, 26, died of an accidental drug overdose.

Marci A. Hamilton, who filed the McIlmail suit, said she believes this is the first time that the archdiocese has been denied confidentiality in a priest sex-abuse case.

Hamilton said she thinks one reason is that in filing suit, McIlmail and her husband never sought anonymity for their son or themselves.

"The McIlmails absolutely put their foot down: No confidentiality, they want everything transparent," Hamilton said.

A spokesman for the archdiocese and Nicholas M. Centrella, the lawyer representing it in the litigation, were not available for comment Thursday. It was not clear whether the ruling could be appealed.

In his motion for confidentiality, Centrella maintained that with Sean McIlmail's death, it would be impossible to prove he was molested. The motion says the Rev. Robert L. Brennan denies molesting McIlmail.

Contending that church documents produced in the discovery process could compromise third parties' personal and financial information, Centrella said McIlmail's lawyers are trying to leverage public pressure against the archdiocese.

"The entire point of a confidentiality order . . . is to encourage the disclosure of documents and information, not prohibit it," Centrella wrote. "Plaintiff has no right to publicly disseminate documents and information obtained in discovery, and should not be permitted to litigate this case in the press."

Bernstein's ruling allows lawyers to redact from publicly filed documents such information as Social Security numbers, financial details, or the names of other alleged victims of sexual abuse.

After an archdiocesan official, Msgr. William J. Lynn, was found guilty of child endangerment in the landmark 2012 clergy sex abuse trial in Philadelphia, Sean McIlmail approached the District Attorney's Office and said he wanted to press criminal charges, alleging he had been sexually molested by Brennan.

The District Attorney's Office investigated and in September 2013 filed rape and other sex-abuse counts charging Brennan with molesting McIlmail from ages 11 to 14, beginning in 1998, when he was a member of the Altar Guild at Resurrection of Our Lord school in Rhawnhurst.

But on Oct. 13, 2013, McIlmail was found dead in what was ruled an accidental overdose, after years of drug abuse and emotional turmoil his family attributed to his molestation.

McIlmail's death ended the criminal case against Brennan, but one month later, his mother, as administrator of his estate, sued the archdiocese, Brennan, and Lynn.

The suit contends that church officials ignored years of complaints about Brennan's sexual misconduct while he molested McIlmail and more than 20 other boys.

Brennan, now 77 and living in Perryville, Md., was prominently mentioned in two Philadelphia grand jury reports on the sexual abuse of minors by archdiocesan priests. He was never criminally charged, however, because the reported incidents were too far in the past to prosecute. After the 2005 grand jury report, church officials ordered Brennan to relinquish all priestly duties and he retired.

Lynn, 65, was secretary for clergy, responsible for investigating allegations against aberrant priests and recommending discipline to the archbishop. According to testimony at his trial, Lynn took part in transferring Brennan from parish to parish, where he repeatedly molested preteen boys.

Lynn was found guilty of child endangerment and is serving three to six years in prison. In December, Superior Court ordered that Lynn get a new trial. The District Attorney's Office is appealing that decision and Lynn remains behind bars.