Jailed ex-priest recants guilty plea for sex abuse

Edward Avery, whose testimony could affect a landmark abuse conviction.
Edward Avery, whose testimony could affect a landmark abuse conviction.
Posted: January 19, 2013

Ten months ago, defrocked Catholic priest Edward V. Avery began serving a sentence of 21/2 to 5 years in prison after pleading guilty to sexually molesting a 10-year-old altar boy from the Northeast.

On Thursday, Avery, 70, returned to a Philadelphia courtroom and recanted his guilty plea - denying any contact with the alleged victim and tossing into turmoil the trial of a former St. Jerome's parish priest and a schoolteacher charged with serially sexually assaulting the same boy in 1998 and 1999.

Avery's testimony could also affect last year's landmark clergy sex-abuse trial that ended with the conviction of Msgr. William J. Lynn.

Lynn, 62, was convicted June 22 of child endangerment for placing Avery in position to abuse the St. Jerome's altar boy. Lynn, once a top aide to Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, was the first church official nationwide convicted of covering up or enabling clergy sex abuse, and was sentenced to three to six years in prison.

After hearing of Avery's testimony Thursday, Lynn's lawyer said he planned within days to ask Superior Court or Lynn's Common Pleas Court trial judge to reconsider Lynn's case.

"If there's a question about [Avery's] guilt, then there's no way you convict Lynn, because Lynn was only convicted as a derivative of Avery," said Thomas Bergstrom.

He said he learned last week about Avery's planned testimony. He said he also told the imprisoned monsignor, who Bergstrom said was "anxious, he's hopeful."

Bergstrom said he believed Avery's recantation. "I think they forced him into this plea, and they made a deal for him that he couldn't turn down."

On the witness stand Thursday, Avery said as much. Questioned by Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti, Avery told the Common Pleas Court jury that he pleaded guilty "to avoid a more lengthy prison term. I didn't want to die in jail."

Later, under questioning by Michael McGovern, the lawyer for the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, Avery said that as he neared trial with Lynn in March, "I was looking at 60 years in prison. Every motion we filed had been turned down, so my options were less and less and less. So that's why I chose to plead."

From a legal standpoint, Avery's change of heart is unlikely to affect his status. The extensive colloquy - a question-and-answer between judge and defendant about the trial rights being abandoned - makes it clear that a person who pleads guilty has few, if any, ways to appeal.

And, as Cipolletti noted, Avery has not filed a motion to withdraw his plea. Avery, however, could be charged with perjury for lying under oath - either in court Thursday or when he pleaded guilty.

Avery's denial of the facts behind his guilty plea were categorical. "I had no contact whatever with" the alleged victim, he told the prosecutor.

Avery also denied discussing the boy with Engelhardt - contradicting a key piece of testimony by the victim. Avery also testified he never met former St. Jerome's teacher Bernard Shero.

Engelhardt, 66, a priest assigned to St. Jerome's, and Shero, 49, a sixth-grade English teacher at the parish school, are on trial for raping the same child.

According to the 2011 county grand jury report about clergy sex abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the boy - identified by the pseudonym "Billy Doe" - was molested by Engelhardt, Avery, and Shero during the 1998-99 school years.

The grand jury report alleges that Avery told the boy that "he had heard about Father Engelhardt's session with Billy and that his sessions with the boy would soon begin."

Looking slightly thinner than he did last year, Avery walked casually to the witness stand - a hint of a smile on his face - dressed in a light-blue, long-sleeved prison shirt with the large white letters "DOC" - for Department of Correction - stenciled on the back.

Defrocked since 2005, Avery is now officially state inmate KL8296 and lives in the state prison at Laurel Highlands in Western Pennsylvania.

Speaking in clipped, formal diction, Avery was sometimes argumentative and pedantic, as when he verbally sparred with Cipolletti about whether he should be referred to as "defrocked" or "laicized."

"Once you're a priest, you're always a priest," he told the prosecutor. He maintained that he was not a member of the laity, just a priest who could not wear a clerical collar or publicly celebrate Mass.

Though Avery flatly denied the incident he pleaded guilty to, he skirted the issue when Cipolletti questioned him about other incidents of alleged child sex abuse during his 35 years as an archdiocesan priest.

One case involved a 12-year-old altar boy who, according his trial testimony last year, became friends with Avery in the late 1970s when Avery was assistant pastor at St. Phillip Neri Church in East Greenville. Avery would often take boys on trips, including to a Jersey Shore house where the boys would drink alcohol and the priest would wrestle with them, witnesses said.

He was 15, he testified, when he accompanied Avery to a disc-jockey job at Smokey Joe's bar at University City, where he got so drunk he passed out. Avery took him to his rectory at nearby St. Agatha-St. James Church and had the boy sleep in his bed. There, he said, Avery fondled him. The same thing happened three years later, he said, when he accompanied Avery on a ski trip to Vermont.

Avery said Thursday that he remembered the boy and even acknowledged "improper contact" during the Vermont trip, when the boy would have been older than 18.

Avery denied ever having oral or anal sex with anyone and discounted Cipolletti's citing of seven other boys who alleged that Avery molested them.

"When I was a young priest, I was always horsing around with kids," Avery said. "There was never any violent sex, just horsing around, tickling, groping by accident."

The first hint that Avery's testimony might be problematic was in the summer, when Lynn's lawyers lost a bid to win Lynn bail during his appeal to the Superior Court.

Lynn's lawyers argued that Avery might have lied at his plea hearing and cited reports from Avery's attorney that he had passed a polygraph during which he denied abusing Billy Doe.

At the time, a ranking prosecutor disputed the suggestion that Avery might have confessed to a crime he didn't commit.

"To say that we knew [Avery] was innocent," said Hugh Burns, chief of the appeals unit for the District Attorney's Office, "was, I'm sorry, it's insane.


Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian at 215-854-2985 or jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @joeslobo.

|
|
|
|
|