Philly priest abuse case goes to jury
PHILADELPHIA (AP) – The credibility of a 24-year-old heroin addict whose sex-abuse complaint took down a Roman Catholic church official in Philadelphia – and helped bring thousands of secret church files to light – is now in the hands of a jury.
The policeman’s son came forward in 2009 with the stunning claim that he’d been raped as a boy by two priests and his sixth-grade teacher. A jury heard two weeks of evidence before deliberations in the case began Friday.
One priest facing five other complaints accepted a plea deal on the eve of trial and went to prison, yet denies any contact with the trial accuser. The remaining defendants, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, 66, of Wyndmoor, and ex-teacher Bernard Shero, 49, of Levittown, have staked their case on the accuser. He’s changed his story several times, in significant ways, since the disclosure.
In closing arguments Friday, prosecutor Mark Cipolletti pointed out the many civil lawyers in court representing financial interests of the Philadelphia archdiocese, Engelhardt’s religious order, the accuser and others.
“That room is littered with lawyers,” Cipolletti told jurors, pointing to the galley, where the gaunt, hollow-eyed accuser sat with his parents and fiancee.
“OK, so he sued the archdiocese,” Cipolletti said. “Who can blame him?”
The young man testified that the abuse started when Engelhardt caught him drinking altar wine in fifth grade. The priest showed him pornography, he said, and weeks later raped him in the sacristy, a church anteroom that connects with the parish school.
The 10-year-old, though small for his age, warned Engelhardt that if the priest touched him again, he would kill him, according to his testimony. Engelhardt never did, he said.
But he said Engelhardt told fellow priest Edward Avery about their “session,” prompting Avery to twice assault the boy, and force him to perform a striptease act. A year later, Shero drove the boy home after detention, and raped him in a parking lot, he said.
“No dollar amount could fix this, and never could,” Cipolletti argued.
Central details of the accuser’s testimony last week differed from the account he first gave the archdiocese in 2009. He told the social worker he’d been raped for five hours by Engelhardt after Mass; beaten and tied with sashes by Avery; and raped by Shero at school.
“(He) is the walking, talking personification of reasonable doubt,” defense lawyer Michael McGovern, who represents Engelhardt, argued Friday.
Shero’s lawyer, in closings a day earlier, described his visually-impaired client as an easy target who’d been taunted by classmates growing up and by his own students as an adult. That portrait led Cipolletti to wonder why he went into teaching.
Reminding jurors of the big picture, McGovern urged jurors to resist the “groundswell presumption of guilt throughout this country” when priests are accused of molesting children.
Thousands of people have accused Catholic priests around the country of abuse, but the complaints were routinely locked in “secret archives,” according to evidence that’s emerged in litigation over the past decade. Several states, including Pennsylvania, have since extended the time limit for child sex-abuse victims to pursue criminal or civil action.
Philadelphia prosecutors saw their chance with the policeman’s son, whose claims were still viable under the new statutes.
And because Avery had been transferred to the boy’s parish despite an earlier, credible abuse complaint, they could charge Monsignor William Lynn, the secretary for clergy at the archdiocese, with child endangerment.
Lynn, 62, was convicted last year and is serving three to six years in prison.
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