Guilty former priest a focus of child-abuse trial

admitted abusing an altar boy.
admitted abusing an altar boy. (Edward V. Avery, 69,)
Posted: April 24, 2012

Edward Avery might be gone from the defense table at the landmark clergy-sex-abuse trial involving Archdiocese of Philadelphia priests, but he remains a pivotal figure in the case.

On Monday, prosecutors and defense lawyers clashed over what jurors could and should be told about Avery, a defrocked priest who was removed as a defendant last month after his last-minute plea to charges that he sexually assaulted a 10-year-old altar boy.

Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina suggested that jurors could even hear from Avery himself.

The issue emerged as prosecutors signaled plans to call to the witness stand this week a former altar boy who said he was abused in the late 1990s by Avery and another priest, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, when both were at St. Jerome’s Church in Northeast Philadelphia. Engelhardt faces a separate trial later this year because he belongs to an independent religious order, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales.

It also came on a day when jurors heard about one priest who began abusing a boy who admitted his sexual confusion during a confession, and a second priest who told a therapist he himself had been the target of a group rape at the seminary.

Avery, 69, was sentenced to 2½ to five years in prison after pleading guilty to the assault and to conspiring with Msgr. William J. Lynn to endanger children. Prosecutors contend that Lynn, as the archdiocese’s secretary for clergy, knew Avery was a threat to children because Lynn had arranged his removal and transfer years earlier from a Mount Airy parish after a man, 29, said Avery molested him in the 1970s.

Lynn’s lawyers maintain that Lynn took steps to remove and isolate Avery from children even as the priest repeatedly denied the only allegation against him.

Avery’s guilty plea did not require him to cooperate with investigators or testify. He and his lawyer participated in jury selection, which occurred before his guilty plea, so the judge addressed his absence when the trial opened five weeks ago. She told jurors that Avery was no longer a defendant, but did not elaborate.

Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington argued Monday that if Lynn’s lawyers tried to challenge the testimony of the St. Jerome altar boy, prosecutors should be able to point out that Avery effectively admitted the crime by pleading guilty. He also wanted jurors to hear from five other men who have come forward in the last two years to say that they, too, were abused as boys by Avery. According to prosecutors, such claims demonstrate their argument that Lynn, despite 12 years in his post, failed to properly investigate sex-abuse allegations or to monitor accused priests.

“Lynn put a powder keg out there,” Blessington said when the jury was out of the room. “If he would have looked, he might have found [Avery’s] victims. The fact that he didn’t was instructive.”

Lynn’s lawyers, Jeffrey Lindy and Thomas Bergstrom, argued that telling the jurors about Avery’s plea would unfairly taint the case. They said the other accusers were irrelevant because they alleged abuse that happened years before Lynn was secretary for clergy and didn’t report it until years after he left the post in 2004.

“How do any of these other victims go to this ‘powder keg’ that Mr. Blessington says was Father Avery, when Msgr. Lynn didn’t know about these victims?” attorney Jeffrey Lindy told the judge.

Sarmina reserved ruling on the issues. If the defense does try to challenge the testimony of the former altar boy, she said, “the commonwealth might want to look into [Avery’s] coming in to testify that he pleaded guilty.” She also said she might have a hearing Tuesday on additional evidence about the newer accusers.

“Sometimes, it just takes people a very long time before they can actually go public with this,” the judge said. “It takes a lot of courage. ... I would not be surprised if there are not many, many more people out there who have chosen never to come forward.”

Jurors on Monday also saw secret church records about two other archdiocesan priests left in ministry for years after the first allegations against them. Prosecutors say the cases demonstrate how Lynn and other church officials knew the scope of the clergy-sex-abuse problem, but failed to address it.

One, the Rev. Peter J. Dunne, was accused of having a long-term sexual relationship with a 13-year-old boy after the teen admitted questioning his sexual identity during a confession with the priest. As an Eagle Scout years later, the alleged victim began molesting young boys because he thought it was OK, his lawyer wrote in a 1986 letter to church officials. “He wanted to have homosexual lovers in the same fashion that Father Dunne had taught him,” said the letter, shown to jurors.

Dunne died two years ago.

The other priest remained in ministry for a decade after admitting to Lynn that he had a three-year sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy in the 1980s. According to the files, the priest contended that it was his only infraction and acknowledged a longtime struggle over his sexual identity. He also told a therapist that he was the target of an attempted rape by a group of classmates at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary and that he was twice sexually assaulted by another seminarian, the records show. Because of the nature of that allegation, Jurors were told the priest’s name, but The Inquirer is withholding it because it does not publish the names of sex-abuse victims without their permission.

He was removed from ministry in 2002 and later agreed to a life of prayer and penance.

Contact John P. Martin at 215-854-4774 or jmartin@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @JPMartinInky.

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