Jury starts work on sex-abuse case against priest and former teacher

Posted: January 26, 2013

After 8 1/2 days of testimony and closing arguments that brought the alleged victim to tears, a Philadelphia jury has begun working toward a verdict in the child-rape trial of a Philadelphia Catholic priest and ex-parochial-school teacher.

The Common Pleas Court jury of eight men and four women met for two hours Friday before breaking until Monday.

The Rev. Charles Engelhardt and Bernard Shero are charged in one of the most salacious episodes in the 2011 county investigating grand jury report on child sex-abuse in the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia: the serial rape of a 10-year-old Northeast boy.

Engelhardt, 66, and Shero, 49, have pleaded not guilty to assaulting the altar boy the grand jury named "Billy Doe."

The victim, now 24, contacted archdiocesan and civil authorities in January 2009, alleging that Engelhardt, Edward V. Avery, and Shero had serially raped him when he was in fifth and sixth grades at St. Jerome's parish.

Avery, now 70 and defrocked, pleaded guilty last year and is serving 21/2 to five years in prison. On Jan. 17, Avery returned as a prosecution witness and recanted, insisting that he did not know or molest Billy Doe and saying he only pleaded guilty to escape a longer prison term.

Neither Engelhardt nor Shero chose to testify in his own defense, but their lawyers, in closing arguments, maintained that Billy's allegations were uncorroborated and contrary to the descriptions of more than 25 character witnesses who testified on behalf of the priest and former teacher.

Both described the accuser as a man trying to erase his drug-addicted criminal past by suing the Catholic Church.

On Friday, Engelhardt's lawyer, Michael McGovern, called the victim the "walking, talking personification of reasonable doubt."

McGovern challenged the jury in his closing to not join what he called a national "groundswell of the presumption of guilt" when it comes to Catholic priests and sex abuse.

"One hears 'priest,' one hears 'child sex abuse': guilty. I'm not even going to pause," McGovern said.

McGovern said that in Engelhardt's 40 years as a Catholic priest and educator, the man in this trial is the only one to accuse him of sex abuse.

Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti told the jurors they could find evidence supporting the horror Billy experienced in his falling grades and increasing absenteeism, lost weight and physical complaints, and the start of what became two decades of alcohol and drug abuse.

"Sometimes the subtle is just as powerful as the obvious," Cipolletti added.

Cipolletti's speech seemed to elevate the emotional tension in court. Engelhardt's and Shero's relatives stole glances at the accuser, sitting on the other side of the room. Some stared, some glared, and a few shook their heads.

The alleged victim, a thin man with a buzz cut and wispy mustache-goatee, sat with his father, a Philadelphia police officer, and mother, a nurse, and supporters wearing pale blue ribbons representing survivors of sex abuse.

His mother put her arm around his shoulders when he began wiping tears and stifling sobs as Cipolletti described "assaults in every bodily orifice."

"Money won't help him. You could not pay a man or boy to sit up there and say that," Cipolletti said, referring to the victim's graphic testimony about the sexual assaults.


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

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