At least four priests, described by lawyers as "whistle-blowers," have come forward hoping to aid in the prosecution of current and former clergy members accused in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sex-abuse scandal.
However, an archdiocesan policy requiring them to notify church lawyers before talking to law enforcement could stifle the testimony they are willing to give, city prosecutors told a judge Wednesday.
"They're muffling us," said Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington, paraphrasing the response he said he had heard from at least one priest. "Priests have told us that this is the same thing the [archdiocese] has done all along."
Those allegations came as Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina continued to hear arguments on the issue raised by prosecutors last week.
After an hour-long hearing, it remained unclear whether Sarmina would order the archdiocese to rescind its policy and inform all employees, as prosecutors had requested. She made no ruling from the bench, and as of Wednesday evening, the case file remained unavailable in the court clerk's office.
The judge has issued a gag order in the case barring attorneys from discussing it with reporters.
Last month, Msgr. Daniel J. Sullivan, the archdiocese's vicar for clergy, issued a memo to lay and clerical employees directing them to notify two attorneys hired by the church before talking to prosecutors - a move church lawyer Robert Welsh described Wednesday as a standard control measure by large institutions.
The archdiocese, Welsh noted, has been inundated with requests from criminal and civil attorneys, the media, and other groups since the release of a Philadelphia grand jury report this year that alleged church officials failed to adequately respond to sex-abuse allegations against at least 37 priests.
But that doesn't mean, he said, that church leaders crafted the policy in an attempt to intimidate anyone with information to share.
"We want these people to cooperate because it's in the archdiocese's benefit," he said. "We stand here today eager to bring them in to talk to the D.A. They are going to provide compelling testimony."
As evidence of the church's willingness to be transparent, he pointed to the hiring of several former prosecutors to run internal investigations into the sex-abuse scandal. Most prominent among them is Gina Maisto-Smith, who is reviewing allegations against 27 priests suspended this year.
"At this point, the archdiocese has become an alumni association for former assistant district attorneys," he said.
But Welsh's representation of at least four employees whose testimony could hurt the church and its leaders poses a clear conflict of interest, as the archdiocese is paying his legal bills, Blessington maintained.
Whatever Sarmina decides, it could significantly affect the ongoing prosecution of two current priests, a defrocked priest, and a former schoolteacher on charges that they sexually abused young boys in the 1990s.
A fifth defendant, Msgr. William J. Lynn, is accused of child endangerment and conspiracy for allegedly placing two of the priests in positions where they could abuse children despite previous accusations of inappropriate behavior.
As secretary for clergy until 2004, Lynn was tasked with investigating sex-abuse allegations against priests and recommending treatment or new assignments for them.
The archdiocese is paying Lynn's legal bills and stands to gain if he is acquitted, Blessington noted.
Wednesday's hearing came a day after Common Pleas Court Judge Lillian Harris Ransom ruled that Bernard Shero, the former schoolteacher charged in the case, could be tried separately from the other four defendants.
Shero is accused of sexually assaulting the same Northeast Philadelphia altar boy that two other defendants, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and Edward Avery, allegedly abused in the late 1990s.
His attorney argued, though, that the former teacher deserved a separate trial because he is not charged with participating in a broader conspiracy to cover up abuse.
Shero's trial is now set to begin after the prosecution of the four others. Their trial is scheduled for February.