Former Philly priest pleads guilty to lying to investigators about clergy sex abuse

A photo of Rev. Robert Brennan, right, is displayed during a news conference in Philadelphia.

In this Nov. 13, 2013, file photo, a photo of Rev. Robert Brennan (right) is displayed during a news conference in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

A defrocked priest pleaded guilty Wednesday to four counts of making false statements to FBI agents investigating clergy abuse.

Former Philadelphia priest Robert Brennan, 83, changed his plea to guilty Wednesday in federal court, according to court documents. The charges stem from a federal investigation undertaken after Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro released an explosive 2018 grand jury report on abuse in the state’s Roman Catholic dioceses that detailed decades of abuse by more than 300 priests against nearly 1,000 victims across the state.

Then-U.S. Attorney William McSwain sent subpoenas to dioceses across the state asking the bishops to turn over files and submit to testimony in front of a grand jury if asked.

The Associated Press reported on that two-year probe that quietly ended as McSwain left office before President Joe Biden was sworn in. Court records showed FBI agents had interviewed at least six priests to determine whether federal charges could be filed.

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Charges against Brennan stemmed from one of those interviews, in which investigators say the priest lied about knowing a man who alleged Brennan had sexually abused him while he was an altar boy at a North Philadelphia church. A sentencing hearing is scheduled for March, and prosecutors have asked for five years of probation with two years served under house arrest.

A message left with Brennan’s attorneys was not immediately returned Wednesday. His attorneys had previously argued that the charges should be thrown out because the FBI investigators spent more than an hour in Brennan’s Maryland home and searched his computer without contacting the former priest’s longtime lawyer.

In 2013, Philadelphia prosecutors had charged Brennan with rape related to the former altar boy’s allegations starting when he was 11 years old in 1998, which fell under a new timeline for victims of sexual abuse to come forward. But prosecutors had to drop those charges when the alleged victim died of a drug overdose before trial.

The man’s family filed a civil lawsuit against the Archdiocese after his death, and settled for an undisclosed amount.

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Brennan had been named in more than 20 abuse complaints during his long church career, but those complaints had long been buried in a clandestine church vault in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, according to testimony from a 2005 grand jury report looking at clergy abuse in Philadelphia.

The watershed 2005 grand jury report devoted a lengthy section to Brennan, saying the archdiocese under the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua reassigned him from parish to parish, even after sending him for psychiatric treatment or counseling four times. But prosecutors had determined the previous victims fell outside of the statute of limitations to charge the priest.

When visited in 2019 by FBI agents Brennan denied knowing or having met the man who alleged the abuse in the 2013 charges. His family produced photos of the priest at his 8th grade graduation and other events, prompting the false statement charges.

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