A former Philly priest with 30-year history of sexual abuse was arrested for lying to the FBI

Robert Brennan faces “falsehood” charges because of PA’s short statute of limitations on abuse.

A photograph of the Robert Brennan, displayed during a news conference in 2013

A photograph of the Robert Brennan, displayed during a news conference in 2013

AP Photo / Matt Rourke
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Updated:  5:55 p.m.

A defrocked Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing boys in area parishes for decades was arrested Thursday by federal authorities in Philadelphia.

The indictment of Robert L. Brennan, 81, is the first since federal prosecutors embarked on a sweeping probe of coverups at Pennsylvania archdioceses last year.

Brennan was initially accused of abuse in a 2005 grand jury report that alleged sexual or inappropriate behavior with more than 20 boys since the late 1980s. The priest had been suspended from duties since 2005 and was formally defrocked by the Vatican in 2017.

After being detained at his Maryland home on Thursday, Brennan was charged with lying to the FBI about his relationship to an accuser’s family. He now faces four counts of making false statements to federal authorities, according to the indictment.

Those charges may pale compared to the past allegations of sexual abuse — but under Pennsulvania’s lax statute of limitations on sexual offenses against minors, many of those charges were too old to pursue in court.

In what legal observers see as a workaround, the U.S. Attorney’s Office opened a probe into Pennsylvania dioceses to build criminal cases against the accused priests on charges that couldn’t be thwarted by statute of limitations.

Making false statements fits the bill.

Defense attorneys say the case underscores the difficult legal climate for victims of clergy abuse in Pennsylvania. Under state laws, victims of child sexual abuse victim must seek criminal charges before they turn 30 — an arbitrary cut-off age that favors abusers, critics say.

Experts have noted that victims of child sexual assault — especially men — often do not come forward to talk until they’re in their 40s or 50s.

“[The case] highlights the need for statute of limitations reform because Brennan could only be charged with perjury rather than sexual abuse,” said Adam Horowitz, an attorney who has represented Brennan’s alleged victims in the past.

Largest settlement in Philly church history

Brennan was at the center of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s largest-ever settlement in a sex abuse case six years ago. The settlement came after one of Brennan’s accusers died of a drug overdose at 26.

In 2012, one of Brennan’s alleged victims, Sean McIlmail, agreed to press charges against against the priest.

The man claimed his pastor began sexually abusing him in 1993, at Brennan’s then-parish in Northeast Philadelphia, when he was just 11 years old. But McIlmail, then 26, died of a drug overdose in Kensington days before the preliminary hearing. The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office closed the case.

The archdiocese reached a settlement with McIlmail’s family last year. It was reportedly the local church’s largest ever payout in a sex abuse case.

According to the indictment, federal authorities interviewed Brennan in Maryland in April for a matter relating to McIlmail. Authorities allege Brennan knowingly lied by saying that, prior to the criminal allegations and the civil lawsuit, he did not know McIlmail, nor three members of his family.

Court documents did not list an attorney for the octogenarian Brennan. His previous criminal attorney from the 2013 case told Billy Penn on Thursday that Brennan was no longer his client.

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