Phila. ex-priest admits abuse; lawsuits settled, filed


PHILADELPHIA — As two of his former colleagues prepared to face trial on abuse-related charges, a former priest of the Philadelphia archdiocese was sentenced to two and a half to five years in prison March 22 after pleading guilty to conspiracy and sexual assault of a 10-year-old boy.

Edward V. Avery, 69, who was removed from the priesthood in 2006, admitted in an appearance before Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina that he was guilty of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse in the 1999 assault. He also said he conspired with co-defendant Msgr. William J. Lynn, then secretary for clergy in the archdiocese, to endanger children.

Msgr. Lynn, who is not charged with any sexual wrongdoing, has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy and endangering children. Another co-defendant, Father James J. Brennan, is accused of raping a boy in 1996 and has also pleaded not guilty. Their trial was scheduled to begin March 26.

“In the end, every human being proceeds on this earth as a flawed human being,” said Avery’s defense attorney, John P. Donohue, at the plea hearing. He said his client “has made some horrible mistakes in his life.”

In another East Coast archdiocese, a former Catholic school teacher sentenced to four consecutive life sentences for child rape and sexual assault could be released because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in a similar case.

John J. Merzbacher, now 70, was convicted in 1994 of raping children while working as a teacher at Catholic Community School in Baltimore. But a federal appeals judge ruled in 2010 that he should be given an opportunity to accept a 10-year plea deal that should have been offered in 1994.

Acceptance of the plea deal would result in Merzbacher’s release, since he has already served more than 15 years in prison.

The Supreme Court’s March 21 decision in Missouri v. Frye held that the right of effective counsel extends to plea deals as well as trials. But Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority, said defendants must demonstrate that they would have accepted the deal if they knew about it, that prosecutors would not have later withdrawn the plea bargain and that a judge would have accepted it.

Baltimore Archbishop (now Cardinal) Edwin F. O’Brien expressed opposition to Merzbacher’s release in 2010, saying that “the substance of his actions, whether he was convicted by a jury or pleads guilty as he now seeks, remains the same — abhorrent and criminal — and justifies the judgment and sentence already rendered.”

The Diocese of Belleville, Ill., recently settled three abuse-related lawsuits involving priests who were removed from ministry in the 1990s. The settlement amounts were not disclosed, but an attorney representing the three abuse victims said they were “substantial.”

Two of the cases involved former priest Raymond Kownacki, while the third was related to ex-priest Jerome Ratermann. All of the abuse incidents took place between the mid-1970s and the early 1980s.

The Diocese of Savannah, Ga., also faced a lawsuit in relation to the hiring of teacher’s aide Cristina Scott at St. James Early Learning Center in Savannah.

A suit filed by the family of a 3-year-old enrolled at the day care center said Scott was hired without a criminal background check and subsequently touched a child inappropriately, then fabricated a report that family members were molesting the child.

“The parents will suffer the consequences for the rest of their life … because of a completely false allegation,” attorney Mark Tate was quoted as saying.

Tate said Scott was under house arrest at the time of her hiring and had faced charges of theft, battery and cruelty to children since 2007.

A March 26 statement by the diocese said that “no one at the St. James Early Learning Center harmed the child in any fashion” and that “at no time did St. James School nor the director accuse anyone of wrongdoing.”

State law requires reporting to the Division of Family and Children Services any suspicion of abuse of a child, the statement noted, and the center’s director decided that some “unusual comments” by the child, then 2, required reporting.

“The allegations with respect to the qualifications of the aide are not germane to the investigation of the report,” the diocese added. “This case is pending in the courts and it is our belief that in the final analysis St. James will be exonerated from these allegations.”