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A former Philly priest, once accused of widespread sexual abuse, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI

Former Philadelphia priest Robert Brennan on Wednesday admitted he lied to FBI agents during an investigation into sexual abuse by clergy members.

In this family photo, Sean McIlmail, right, stands with Robert L. Brennan at his eighth grade graduation.
In this family photo, Sean McIlmail, right, stands with Robert L. Brennan at his eighth grade graduation.Read moreThe Philadelphia Inquirer / MCT

Former Philadelphia priest Robert Brennan on Wednesday admitted he lied to FBI agents during a 2019 investigation into sexual abuse by clergy, bringing a long-awaited measure of justice to relatives of a now-deceased Northeast Philadelphia man who said he’d been abused by Brennan in grade school two decades ago.

The admission, at a federal court hearing, capped a long attempt by relatives of Sean McIlmail to hold Brennan accountable for his alleged sexual abuse of children. Two Philadelphia grand juries found that the now-defrocked priest had raped or assaulted as many as 20 young people, but most of the crimes were too old to prosecute by the time the allegations came to light. And rape charges filed in McIlmail’s case collapsed in 2013 when he died of a drug overdose.

In court Wednesday, Brennan, 83, admitted he lied to FBI agents two years ago when he told them during an interview at his home in Maryland that he did not know McIlmail, his brother, or his parents.

Brennan and his lawyers declined to comment while leaving the courthouse, and he did not explain in court why he had been untruthful.

For McIlmail’s relatives the plea was an important moment — as Brennan admitted to a crime.

“This is a significant day,” said his mother, Debbie McIlmail.

His brother, Michael P. McIlmail, said: “It’s giving some type of closure.”

The case was the first and only prosecution tied to a federal investigation launched in 2019 by then-U.S. Attorney William M. McSwain into clergy abuse across Pennsylvania. The probe came after Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro published a sweeping grand jury report detailing abuse allegations against more than 300 priests throughout the state.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michelle Morgan said Wednesday that the federal investigation is “drawing to a close” because many allegations of wrongdoing are either barred from prosecution due to the statute of limitations, or do not constitute a federal crime.

Sean McIlmail in 2013 had accused Brennan of raping and molesting him from 1998 to 2001 at Resurrection of Our Lord Parish in Rhawnhurst. The abuse allegedly started when McIlmail was 11, and took place in the church vestry, in Brennan’s rectory bedroom, in a parish storage area, and in a movie theater.

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office filed rape charges against Brennan after McIlmail detailed the allegations to police. But prosecutors were forced to drop the case shortly afterward, when McIlmail died.

Criminal proceedings stayed quiet for years, even as McIlmail’s relatives sued the Catholic Church in civil court and reached an undisclosed settlement.

But in 2019, when FBI agents visited Brennan, they asked about his relationship with McIlmail. Brennan denied knowing McIlmail or his family, who were prominent members of the parish. The family also had photos taken at eighth-grade graduations showing Sean and his brother posing with Brennan.

Brennan’s attorneys had unsuccessfully sought to have the case dismissed, accusing federal agents of “outrageous” government misconduct in the FBI interview. Agents visited Brennan after learning that he’d denied knowing McIlmail during a deposition for the family’s civil suit, and his lawyers said the interrogation was conducted solely to induce him to lie to the FBI.

U.S. District Judge Anita B. Brody is now set to sentence Brennan in March. Under the terms of a tentative plea agreement, prosecutors have recommended a sentence of five years’ probation, with the first two years served on house arrest.

McIlmail’s father, Michael, said he’d hoped Brennan might be sent to prison. But he was at least pleased that Brennan was made to answer for his actions, even if that won’t bring his son back.

“What is justice,” he said, “when a life is lost?”