Trial begins for priest, teacher accused of assaulting altar boy

Posted: January 16, 2013

THE CRIMINAL TRIAL of a priest and a former Catholic schoolteacher accused of sexually assaulting an altar boy began Monday with the prosecutor calling the defendants "predators" who subjected the boy to "the most vile acts." Conversely, defense attorneys painted the now-adult accuser as a drug-addicted liar angling for a payout.

As their attorneys spoke of them, defendants Rev. Charles Engelhardt, 66, and Bernard Shero, 49, sat stone-faced and spoke only when they stood to plead not guilty. Both are accused of engaging in sexual acts with the boy in 1998, '99 and 2000, allegedly beginning when he was a 10-year-old altar boy at St. Jerome Parish, in the Northeast.

Edward Avery, 70, a defrocked priest who lived at St. Jerome's rectory during those years, pleaded guilty last year to assaulting the boy and is serving a 2 1/2- to five-year prison sentence. He is scheduled to testify for the prosecution against Engelhardt and Shero. The accuser, now 24, is also scheduled to testify Tuesday or Wednesday.

Shero, who attempted suicide with pills before being arrested, is charged with the rape of a child and related counts, while Engelhardt, who is still a priest but not allowed to perform Mass, is charged with involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and related counts. Both are out on bail.

Assistant District Attorney Evangelia Manos told jurors during her opening statement that the defendants were the type of predators who assumed that because of their titles, most people would think they were not capable of harming children.

Engelhardt was the first to strike, she alleged, after catching the boy drinking communion wine following a 6 a.m. Mass. Instead of scolding the boy, he offered him more wine then started chatting him up about sex, Manos said.

A week later, she said, Engelhardt made the boy undress in the same church room and performed oral sex on him.

Shero assaulted the boy when he entered his sixth-grade class, Manos said. While giving the boy a ride home, Manos said, Shero drove to a secluded parking lot, told the boy, "We're going to have some fun," then performed oral sex on him and attempted to sodomize him.

The boy, whose identity the Daily News is withholding, tried to numb his emotional pain with drugs and eventually got expelled from Archbishop Ryan High School when he was caught with marijuana and brass knuckles, the prosecutor said.

After age 18, he first told his police officer father and nurse mother about the abuse, which led to the criminal case.

The accuser's mother testified Monday that he has been suicidal for years and has been to at least 23 drug-rehab programs. At one point, the lifelong Catholic referred to the church as "the enemy," and said that before the alleged assaults on her son, she believed church to be the safest place for her son to be other than at home.

Michael McGovern, Engelhardt's attorney, said that by the end of the trial, the accuser's story will lack the "ring of truth" and there will be "a mountain of reasonable doubt."

The accuser, he said, has told four or five versions of the alleged sex acts. "It just defies common sense," McGovern said.

"[The accuser], I know, is a damaged person. He's a broken person. . . . life was not ruined or affected negatively by Father Charles Engelhardt," McGovern said.

Burton Rose, Shero's attorney, told the jurors that the accuser was motivated because of a potential windfall from a separate civil lawsuit and because he needs an excuse to explain his "own bad choices."

He said that Shero was born legally blind in one eye and was often bullied by the students at St. Jerome Parish, making him hardly "the kind of guy" who would do the things of which he's accused.

On Twitter: @MensahDean

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