Prosecutors: Priest trial verdict a victory for victims

Posted: January 31, 2013

In a case that has already put a Philadelphia Catholic Church official behind bars for covering up child sexual abuse, a jury returned guilty verdicts Wednesday against a priest and a former parochial-school teacher for the sexual assault of a 10-year-old Northeast altar boy.

Wednesday's verdicts against the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and Bernard Shero for the serial sexual assault of a St. Jerome's pupil in 1998 and 1999 were lauded by District Attorney Seth Williams as another victory for sexual-abuse victims.

"You saw how . . . they tried to victimize and demonize the victim," Williams said afterward. "I'm very thankful that the jury listened and did what they did to hold these two men accountable and responsible for the heinous crime they committed."

The Common Pleas Court jury of eight men and four women deliberated about 20 hours since Friday after nine days of testimony.

Engelhardt, 66, a priest for more than 40 years, was found guilty of child endangerment, corruption of a minor, indecent assault, and conspiracy. The jury deadlocked on a count of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.

Shero, 49, a former elementary English teacher in parochial schools, was found guilty of all charges: rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, child endangerment, corruption of a minor, and indecent assault.

Both men reacted stoically to the verdicts, announced before a courtroom packed with their relatives and the victim's.

The now-24-year-old victim, called "Billy Doe" in the 2011 grand jury report about child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, was not in the courtroom for the verdict.

His parents, sitting in the front row, shuddered as the forewoman announced the verdict. The father, a police officer, comforted his wife, a nurse, who began crying.

Relatives and friends of Engelhardt and Shero, more than a score of whom testified as character witnesses, also wept.

Defense lawyers Michael McGovern and Burton A. Rose seemed stunned at the verdict and at Judge Ellen Ceisler's decision to have both defendants immediately taken into custody.

"I've been present for trial jury verdicts for 37 years now, and this is the most disappointing, shocking verdict I've ever experienced," McGovern said afterward. "I still believe that Father Engelhardt is innocent of all charges 100 percent."

Rose said he also remained convinced that Shero was innocent and called him a "soft-spoken man with a lot of integrity."

Shero, a socially awkward man with impaired vision from congenital cataracts, tried to commit suicide when he was charged in February 2011. Rose said Shero had been bullied since childhood and called him the "perfect target" for abuse allegations.

Ceisler set sentencing for April 18. Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti, who prosecuted with Evangelia Manos, said Shero faces up to 57 years in prison and Engelhardt up to 37 years.

The assault on Billy was arguably the most salacious episode in a 2011 county grand jury report that led to charges against Engelhardt and Shero; Msgr. William J. Lynn, who as secretary of clergy was supposed to investigate allegations against priests; and priests Edward V. Avery and James J. Brennan.

According to the grand jury report, Billy was passed from Engelhardt to Avery to Shero when he was in fifth and sixth grades at St. Jerome's parish and school in Northeast Philadelphia.

In often emotional, tearful words, Billy testified that the abuse set him on a downward spiral that led to drug use, expulsion from high schools, and suicide attempts.

The defense attorneys hammered at the victim-accuser, telling the jury he was trying to erase a misspent life by "scoring a payday" suing the archdiocese. That lawsuit is pending in Common Pleas Court.

The defense also argued that the case was Billy's word against two men who had never before been arrested or accused of sexually abusing children.

The one defendant who had a history of sexually abusing children was Avery, whose court appearance upstaged the other witnesses.

Now defrocked, Avery pleaded guilty last year and was sentenced to 21/2 to five years in prison. But he returned as a prosecution witness at this trial and threw the case into turmoil by recanting his guilty plea, saying he did not know Billy.

The first trial resulting from the 2011 grand jury report ended last June with the landmark child-endangerment verdict against Lynn.

Lynn, 62, was the first Catholic Church administrator in the United States convicted of a crime for covering up or enabling the sexual abuse of children by priests.

He is serving three to six years in prison and is appealing his conviction.

The fifth defendant, Brennan, 49, is accused of the attempted rape of a 14-year-old boy in 1996. Last year's jury was unable to reach a verdict, and Brennan is to be retried March 6.


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

 

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