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Witness recalls gropings by Pennsylvania priest in her teen years

By Joseph A. Slobodzian, The Philadelphia Inquirer –

PHILADELPHIA — She was a 13-year-old girl, fifth child of seven in a devout Catholic family in suburban Roslyn, Pa., whose mother attended Mass once or twice daily.

But the girl dreaded Sunday mornings.

Not because of a crisis of faith. Sundays meant a morning of groping by the Rev. Albert T. Kostelnick.

The woman, now in her mid-50s, told a Philadelphia Common Pleas Court jury Thursday about how Kostelnick fondled her for two years as she served food in the rectory of St. John of the Cross Church in Roslyn — and then did the same to two of her sisters who followed her into the job.

“I didn’t know what to do,” the woman told the jury. “I felt helpless and trapped. My parents expected me to work.”

Kostelnick retired in 2004 and lived under church supervision until he died on March 30, 2009, at 81.

The woman’s testimony continued the prosecution’s effort to show how Msgr. William J. Lynn and other church leaders shuffled and protected priests suspected of sexual misconduct or abuse.

Lynn, who as secretary of clergy from 1992 to 2004 ran the office that recommended priests’ assignments, is the first church official nationwide to be tried for allegedly enabling or covering up clergy sex abuse.

His co-defendant, the Rev. James J. Brennan, is charged with attempting to rape a boy, 14, in 1996.

Both have denied the accusations.

Thursday’s court session ended the first week of what is expected to be a three-month trial. Judge M. Teresa Sarmina has scheduled four-day trial weeks, so the case will not resume until Monday.

Although Kostelnick was not criminally charged in this trial, city prosecutors are citing his case and others to show what they allege is a pattern in which Lynn and officials of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia were protective of sexually abusive priests.

Lynn’s lawyers have argued that as secretary of clergy, he was the first church official to stop the practice of shuttling deviant priests from parish to parish, citing Kostelnick as a case in point.

The differing interpretations of Lynn’s decision-making led to a tense interlude of questioning between Lynn’s lead attorney, Thomas A. Bergstrom, and James Dougherty, a police detective assigned to the District Attorney’s Office who participated in the church sex-abuse investigation.

Dougherty was testifying about archdiocesan documents involving sexually abusive priests and explaining their meaning to the jury.

Bergstrom referred to Lynn’s decision during the late 1990s to rebuff the lobbying of former priest Raymond O. Leneweaver to return to the priesthood.

Leneweaver, now 78, voluntarily left the priesthood in 1981 after years of complaints that he had sexually abused 14 altar boys in various area parishes.

Bergstrom asked whether the decision to rebuff Leneweaver showed concern for the victims.

“He’s concerned about the scandal he could bring to the church,” Dougherty replied. “I have yet to see a document showing concern for the victims. It’s always about the church.”

Bergstrom pressed on: “You’re excluding the priests, nuns, lay teachers and parishioners? Are you excluding them from the ‘church?’ ”

“Their concern is for the hierarchy of the church and not for the laity,” Dougherty said.

The lay perspective was provided by the female witness, whose strong and sometimes emotional testimony showed how the impact of her devout family life and religious upbringing affected her ability to reject the priest’s sexual touching.

She said she never told her parents at the time because they were so religious, “they wouldn’t have believed me, and if they did, they wouldn’t have done anything.”

The woman noted she did not learn about the assaults on her two sisters until years later, when the three of them happened to be discussing memories of Kostelnick and their childhoods at St. John’s.

She said she told her mother only when she was 38, after the birth of her own daughter, whom she was trying to educate to make less vulnerable to abuse.

“ ‘Let it go,’ ” the woman said her mother advised. “ ‘It happened a long time ago and just move on.’ ”

Questioned by Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti, the woman testified that her mother volunteered her to work in the St. John’s rectory serving meals to priests from 5 to 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Sundays.

She earned $5 for her work, the woman said, and endured Kostelnick’s physical attentions. She said the priest lived at St. John’s but taught at a nearby archdiocesan high school.

She said Kostelnick would dine alone at the end of a 12-foot-long conference table, seated farthest from the closed door to try to avoid detection. As she served his meal, she said, the priest began holding her hands and making small talk. Gradually, his hands moved upward until they were on her breasts.

Finally, in December 2001, the woman testified, she wrote a letter to Lynn — who coincidentally had attended St. John’s school with her brother — and reported what happened.

Lynn’s assistant, the Rev. Vincent Welsh, replied and began a series of conversations about the woman’s allegations.

Later, the woman said, Welsh told her that another woman corroborated her story about Kostelnick, but that the priest had denied everything, and a psychological evaluation was inconclusive.

Under questioning by Allison Khaskelis, a lawyer on Lynn’s defense team, the woman acknowledged that Lynn’s office responded promptly and that she was later offered and accepted therapy paid for by the church — but only after her mother died.

The woman called Kostelnick’s conduct “wrong and evil” and said it “left a deep wound” that affected her feelings toward men and her faith.

“I have since left the Catholic Church, a casualty of my awakening,” the woman told the jury.

According to the grand jury report, Kostelnick admitted to the archdiocese review board in 2004 about his long-standing habit of fondling the breasts of young girls.

By the time Kostelnick was removed in 2004, the archdiocese had reports of assaults by him on 18 girls.

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