Sex-abuse trial begins for priest, former teacher

Ex-teacher Bernard Shero is accused of molesting a fifth grader in 2000.
Ex-teacher Bernard Shero is accused of molesting a fifth grader in 2000. (DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer)
Posted: January 16, 2013

The trial of a priest and a former teacher charged with sexually assaulting a 10-year-old altar boy at a Northeast Philadelphia parish opened Monday with prosecutors portraying the men as predators who turned a happy-go-lucky honors student into a despondent teenager who was expelled from school, attempted suicide, and turned to drugs.

Defense attorneys questioned the credibility of the accuser, saying he had told many different versions of the abuse since reporting it in 2009. They described him as a "damaged" man whose personality shift was the result of drug addiction.

Defense attorney Michael McGovern, who represents the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, also spoke of a "presumption of guilt" that now exists in regard to Catholic priests.

"People look at a Roman collar and they see a bull's-eye," McGovern said Monday in his opening statement before Common Pleas Court Judge Ellen Ceisler.

Engelhardt, 66, and Bernard Shero, 49, are accused of molesting the boy, identified in a grand jury report as "Billy Doe," when he was a fifth grader at St. Jerome's. The Inquirer does not identify alleged victims of sexual assault.

Assistant District Attorney Evangelia Manos said jurors would hear testimony from Billy's family, teachers, and doctor, as well as Billy himself.

Jurors will also hear about a 2011 suicide attempt by Shero, who Manos said swallowed pills after learning he would be charged and who left a note expressing shame and apologizing to his family.

Shero's attorney, Burton Rose, said the note referred to Shero's shame at having been accused of such "vile" acts. He suggested that the abuse was fabricated for selfish reasons and cited a civil lawsuit Billy has pending against the archdiocese.

"He may be coming forward because he found a way to explain away his own bad choices," Rose said.

Engelhardt and Shero are the last two of five people charged as a result of the 2011 county grand jury report outlining a cover-up of clergy sexual abuse of children. The accuser, now 24, is a central figure in that report.

According to the grand jury, Billy was raped by Engelhardt in 1998 after serving at an early-morning weekday Mass at St. Jerome's. Some months later, the report says, Billy was assaulted by the Rev. Edward Avery, who was chaplain at nearby Nazareth Hospital and who lived at St. Jerome's rectory.

The next year, the report said, Billy was raped by Shero, his homeroom and English teacher.

Avery pleaded guilty to assaulting Billy in 1999. He is expected to testify.

The first to take the stand Monday was Billy's mother, who testified that until high school, her son was a spirited, cheerful student who joined school clubs and became an altar boy to take on a meaningful role in his church.

When Billy was 14, she testified, he was expelled from Archbishop Ryan High School for having marijuana and weapons, and he spiraled downward. He became suicidal, started cutting himself, and soon was committed to a mental-health hospital. Billy has since been arrested numerous times and has been in 23 rehab programs.

When he was 18 or 19, she testified, Billy told his parents that two priests had abused him, then immediately shut down and refused to say more. It was several years before he reported the abuse to authorities, she said.

"He wasn't going to talk about it," she said, "until he was ready."

Contact Allison Steele at 215-854-2641 or

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