PHILADELPHIA – A troubled policeman’s son who accuses two Roman Catholic priests and a teacher of raping him during boyhood is set to testify at a Philadelphia trial this week – and have his startling claims challenged for the first time.
The young man, identified by the pseudonym Billy in a 2011 grand jury report, testified in a landmark priest-abuse case last year. But in a strategic move, lawyers for the church official on trial never cross-examined him.
Monsignor William Lynn’s lawyers doubted Billy’s story, but they feared their questions would open the door for jurors to learn that one of the accused priests had taken a plea deal.
Lynn later became the first U.S. church official ever convicted over his handling of abuse complaints. He’s serving three to six years in prison for endangering Billy’s safety by moving the Rev. Edward Avery, a suspected pedophile, to St. Jerome’s Parish.
“I thought I did something wrong – and it’s a priest,” Billy testified about his 1999 encounter with Avery. “I didn’t think anyone would believe me.”
The other two rape suspects go on trial today, and Billy’s credibility – under potentially fierce cross-examination – may determine the outcome.
The Rev. Charles Engelhardt, an Oblate of St. Francis, and Bernard Shero, Billy’s sixth-grade teacher, have pleaded not guilty to rape, indecent assault, child endangerment and other charges. Both Engelhardt, 66, of Wyndmoor, and Shero, 49, of Levittown, rejected plea offers of 7 1/2 to 15 years in prison, and face far more time if convicted. A gag order prevents them or their lawyers from commenting on the case.
In the adult Billy, the jury will see an accuser who’s spent much of his life battling drugs, alcohol and arrests for petty crimes. By his own count, he’s been in rehab nearly three dozen times. He told the jury in Lynn’s trial that he’d started smoking marijuana at age 11, a year after the abuse began. He then moved on to heroin, painkillers and other drugs.
According to the grand jury report, Billy’s abuse began after Engelhardt caught the 10-year-old drinking altar wine at St. Jerome’s Parish in northeast Philadelphia. The priest let him get drunk, showed him pornography and assaulted him the next week after Mass, the report said. Months later, it was Avery’s turn, the report said. Avery twice assaulted the boy after Mass, after forcing him to do a striptease, according to the report and Billy’s testimony.
The abuse by Shero allegedly started a year later, when the teacher offered him a ride home. Shero instead took him to a park where he raped him, the grand jury said.
Billy has a civil lawsuit pending against the Philadelphia Archdiocese that’s on hold until after the criminal trial. His civil lawyer has described him as ready, if nervous, to testify.
“He’s been through it once, but in a very different scenario,” lawyer Slade McLaughlin said last fall, as an earlier trial date approached. He did not immediately return a call for comment Friday.
Billy spent only an hour or so on the witness stand at Lynn’s trial.
The jury saw photographs of him as a tow-headed altar boy, a stark contrast to the brooding, dark-eyed 24-year-old they saw in court. He told jurors he had kept the assaults secret for years, until they spilled out at a drug therapy session. He reported them to authorities in 2009.
It’s not clear whether the jury will hear about his arrest record or Shero’s alleged suicide attempt on the eve of his January 2011 arrest. Common Pleas Judge Ellen Ceisler closed a pretrial evidence hearing to the public Thursday, and has kept key pretrial filings under seal.
But prosecutors have said they might call Avery to the witness stand. At his March plea hearing, he admitted sexually assaulting Billy and conspiring with Lynn and others to cover it up. He got a relatively light 2 1/2 to five years in prison.
Lynn’s lawyers, in a post-trial motion, said a defense polygraph had cleared Avery of assaulting Billy. They argue that Avery never met the boy but took a sweetheart deal to avoid being prosecuted for other abusing other children.
Prosecutors, in court papers, have stood by the integrity of Avery’s plea.
And McLaughlin, Billy’s civil lawyer, has called the plea “proof positive” that his client’s claims are true.