Philadelphia Priest Abuse Legal Update – Brennan to be Retried


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Early this week, Philadelphia prosecutors announced they would retry Father James Brennan whose first trial ended with a hung jury. According to NBC10, two jurors stated they couldn’t make up their minds about Brennan’s case because they didn’t find the witnesses credible and felt they didn’t get enough information. In addition, they wanted to hear from Father Brennan, who did not take the stand in his own defense.

In criminal cases, defendants have the constitutional right not to take the witness stand in their own defense. The burden of proof remains with the state, who must prove beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant committed the crime. This is why child sex abuse cases often depend on credibility of the witnesses. If there is only one victim, then the jury’s role is that much harder, because they must then focus on the credibility of just one victim. In many instances, victims of child sex abuse like priest abuse, develop drug and alcohol dependencies, struggle with mental illness and have run-ins with the law. Their actions after the abuse take on unfair significance. Unfortunately when the case was tried, Pennsylvania did not allow experts to explain victim response to sex abuse. A new bill was just signed into law last month, allowing use of such experts in criminal cases. However, the law is not retroactive.

What Went Wrong in the Priest Abuse Case Against Brennan

In Brennan’s case, the victim testified he was 14 years old when he was raped by Brennan. Also, the victim’s mother testified that despite the fact that Brennan admitted something inappropriate had occurred at a sleepover with the victim, she still allowed Brennan to have contact with her family. In other words, she believed Brennan. This may have been the most damaging piece of evidence in Brennan’s case, making it difficult for jurors to convict him.

The reality is that juries convict more easily in child sex abuse cases when they hear testimony or see evidence of other victims or similar acts committed by the defendant. Such propensity evidence is overwhelming and shows a pattern or practice. An example of this is the Sandusky jury, which heard from victim after victim, and took 20 hours to deliberate nearly 50 counts. This was relatively fast in terms of jury deliberations.

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Published: July 25, 2012