Ex-altar boy's case may revive suit against Philly archdiocese

The Rev. Charles Engelhardt was found guilty last week by a Philadelphia jury.
The Rev. Charles Engelhardt was found guilty last week by a Philadelphia jury.
Posted: February 04, 2013

The criminal case resulting from the serial sexual assault of a 10-year-old Northeast Philadelphia altar boy may well have ended with Wednesday's guilty verdicts against a priest and a former Catholic-school teacher.

But the convictions of the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and Bernard Shero have also opened the door for a civil lawsuit with the potential to reach beyond the two defendants into the hierarchy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

The lawsuit by the former St. Jerome's altar boy dubbed "Billy Doe" was filed in July 2011 in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. It has been dormant while charges against Engelhardt and Shero were unresolved.

Lawyers for the now-24-year-old Billy say they are preparing to reactivate the case and expand the number of church officials being sued.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," lawyer Paul Lauricella told reporters after Wednesday's verdict.

Among the first candidates to be added as defendants: Bishops Edward P. Cullen and Joseph R. Cistone.

Lauricella said both were part of what he called "the most troubling aspect of this whole case. They placed the welfare of the church above the welfare of children - victimized children."

Lauricella's law partner is Slade McLaughlin, who represents one victim of former Pennsylvania State University football coach Jerry Sandusky.

Cullen, 79, is the retired bishop of Allentown and Cistone, 63, is the current bishop of Saginaw, Mich.

In the mid-1990s, both were in the Philadelphia Archdiocese and close to its leader, Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua.

Cullen and Cistone were not criminally charged after the 2011 county grand jury investigation of the cover-up of clergy sex abuse of children.

During last year's trial, both men were mentioned for allegedly participating in the shredding - on Bevilacqua's orders - of a 1994 memo by Msgr. William J. Lynn that identified 35 priests suspected of sexual abuse or pedophilia.

From 1992 to 2004, Lynn, 62, was the archdiocese secretary for clergy, responsible for investigating allegations against priests and recommending action to the cardinal.

At trial last year, prosecutors maintained that the 1994 document shredding - disclosed to the district attorney's office just before Lynn's trial began - was evidence of a top-down cover-up of sex abuse by church officials.

Though neither prelate testified at Lynn's trial, prosecutors contended both men misled the grand jury by not acknowledging the 1994 memo or Bevilacqua's order to destroy the memo.

Lynn was found guilty of child endangerment by the Common Pleas Court jury - the first U.S. church official convicted for his supervisory role over priests who sexually abused children.

Lynn is now serving three to six years in prison and appealing his conviction to the state Superior Court.

Lauricella noted that civil cases require a lower standard of proof than the "guilt beyond reasonable doubt" standard in criminal trials.

Cullen and Cistone have declined to comment on the 1994 incident. Archdiocesan spokesman Kenneth A. Gavin also declined to comment.

Beyond the lawsuit filed on behalf of Billy Doe, at least a half-dozen other civil suits are pending against the archdiocese by people who say they were sexually abused as children by priests.

Not that there isn't legal fallout remaining from the 2011 charges against Engelhardt, Shero, Lynn, and two others.

Engelhardt, 66, and Shero, 49, are both in custody pending sentencing April 18.

The third man charged with molesting Billy Doe in 1998 and 1999 - Edward V. Avery - pleaded guilty last year just before he was to be tried with Lynn. He was sentenced to 21/2 to five years in prison.

Now defrocked, Avery returned as a prosecution witness in Engelhardt and Shero's trial and stunned many when he recanted his guilty plea and said he did not know Billy Doe.

Lynn's lawyers are now preparing to use Avery's new testimony in their effort to reverse his conviction. Lynn's lawyers argue that his child-endangerment conviction is linked to letting Avery, a known pedophile, live at St. Jerome's rectory, where he preyed on Billy. Without Avery, Lynn's lawyers argue, there is no case against Lynn.

District Attorney Seth Williams, meanwhile, says his office will consider whether to charge Avery with perjury or lying under oath.

And then there is the fifth defendant charged in 2011. The Rev. James J. Brennan, 49, is accused in an unrelated incident with the attempted rape of a 14-year-old boy in 1996.

Last year's jury was unable to reach a verdict in Brennan's case. He will be retried March 6.


Contact Joseph A. Slobodzian

at 215-854-2985, jslobodzian@phillynews.com, or @joeslobo on Twitter.

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