PHILADELPHIA – Priests have been marked with a “bull’s eye” by manipulative accusers who plan to sue the church, a defense lawyer said as Philadelphia’s latest priest-abuse trial opened Monday.
The case involves a single accuser: a policeman’s son-turned-heroin addict who said he was serially raped by two priests and his Catholic school teacher as a 10-year-old altar boy.
His 2009 complaint provided the hook for Philadelphia prosecutors to bring the nation’s first criminal charges against a U.S. church official for allegedly covering up sexual abuse by priests. The man’s accusation was pivotal because the now-24-year-old said he was assaulted in 1999 – within the time limit for prosecutors to file charges and pursue church higher-ups.
The case spawned last year’s landmark conviction of the Rev. William Lynn, who handled priest assignments at the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia. He is now serving three to six years in prison for child endangerment.
One of the accused priests, Edward Avery, pleaded guilty. Now the two other alleged molesters, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and former teacher Bernard Shero, are in court for their trial.
Michael McGovern, who represents Engelhardt, told jurors in his opening statement the accuser has “never told the same story twice.”
He added: “People look at Roman collars and they see a bull’s eye.”
The case is rife with the scarred lives, suicide attempts and family turmoil seen in similar cases nationwide. But the jury must decide who or what caused them.
At Lynn’s trial, the accuser said his older brother introduced him to drugs at age 11. He has attempted suicide “on many occasions” and gone through about two dozen stints at drug rehabilitation, Assistant District Attorney Evangelina Manos said Monday.
McGovern suggested the brother – now a city lawyer – will challenge that account.
Shero made a suicide attempt of his own; he gobbled up pills the night before he was to surrender on the January 2011 charges. Manos suggested a suicide note about his shame pointed to Shero’s guilt, but defense lawyer Burton Rose said it refers only to the notoriety of the charges.
The trial began Monday with some confusion, as each man was apparently arraigned before the jury on a charge that has been dropped. Common Pleas Judge Ellen Ceisler told jurors she would clarify the list of charges before they deliberate.
Ceisler has sealed pretrial memos and rulings, kept the press and public out of the final pretrial hearing Thursday, and issued gag orders that prevent lawyers from commenting.
But it appeared that a rape charge against Engelhardt and a conspiracy charge against Shero had been dropped.
The first witness called Monday was the accuser’s mother, a nurse who said her long cheerful son started falling apart in ninth grade, when he was expelled from his Catholic high school for using marijuana and having brass knuckles. She and her husband have been trying to keep him alive ever since as he’s struggled with drug addiction and emotional issues, she said.
He first told them at age 18 that he’d been abused by “a priest,” but then shut down. He only told them details years later, she said.
The case is expected to last several weeks, and the accuser’s testimony, which may start Tuesday, won’t be the only dramatic high note. Avery will be called to testify about his guilty plea to sexually assaulting the man and conspiring with church officials to do so.
Lynn’s lawyers believe Avery never even met the accuser. They say prosecutors offered Avery a sweetheart deal so they could get to Lynn. In turn, Avery avoided being prosecuted for a string of other accusers, they said.
Prosecutors declined to arrest Lynn’s supervisors, retired Cardinal Justin Rigali and the late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, although they had damning words for them in two exhaustive grand jury reports in 2005 and 2011.