Federal prosecutors find a way to revive abuse-related case against defrocked Philly priest

Six years ago, prosecutors in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office filed child-abuse charges against a Catholic priest, Robert L. Brennan, only to see their case collapse in less than a month after his accuser was found dead from an accidental drug overdose.

The collapse hit especially hard because a pair of grand jury reports said Brennan had victimized as many as 20 youngsters, making him one of the region’s worst abusers. Yet case after case had been ruled out as too stale under Pennsylvania’s tough statute-of-limitations rules — until Sean McIlmail leveled his accusations.

Now, six years after McIlmail’s death, Brennan, who was defrocked in 2017, faces a new set of criminal charges from a new set of prosecutors.

Pursuing a novel legal strategy, federal authorities on Thursday charged Brennan with a fresh crime. Rather than indicting him for allegedly abusing McIlmail two decades ago, they charged him with four counts of lying to the FBI this year, saying he falsely denied knowing McIlmail or his brother and his churchgoing parents.

The case is the first brought since Philadelphia’s U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain announced a year ago that he had launched an investigation into clergy abuse across Pennsylvania, an unprecedented move for a federal prosecutor.

Zach Hiner, executive director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), praised McSwain for finding a creative way to charge Brennan with a federal crime.


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