PHILADELPHIA – A jury Wednesday convicted a priest and teacher in a pivotal church-abuse case that rocked the Philadelphia archdiocese and sent a church official to prison for child endangerment.
The verdict upholds the stunning account by a 24-year-old policeman’s son that he was sexually abused as a boy by two priests and his sixth-grade teacher. One priest pleaded guilty before trial while the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and former teacher Bernard Shero were convicted at trial.
The accuser’s 2009 complaint describing the abuse led to the landmark conviction last year of Monsignor William Lynn, the longtime secretary for clergy in Philadelphia. Lynn is serving three to six years in prison for his role transferring an admitted pedophile priest to the accuser’s northeast Philadelphia parish. A string of priest victims testified in Lynn’s case, but none said they had been passed around like the policeman’s son.
“I’m overjoyed that there was a conviction, mostly because of this victim. I really didn’t expect it,” said Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams, an active Catholic who revived efforts to prosecute the archdiocese after taking office three years ago.
The accuser, now a gaunt young man, has battled heroin abuse since his teens and still has a drug case pending. And details of his story changed frequently over the years, even about whether Shero raped him in the classroom or in a parked car.
“The victim was demonized, cross-examined, … dehumanized. I would understand how a jury could come to a different verdict,” Williams said.
The accuser said the assaults began after Engelhardt caught him drinking altar wine in fifth grade. He said Engelhardt told fellow priest Edward Avery about their “session,” prompting Avery to twice sexually assault the boy. And he testified that Shero raped him a year later, after driving him home after detention.
The jury convicted Shero, 49, of Levittown, of rape, indecent sexual assault and other charges. They convicted Engelhardt, 66, of Wyndmoor, of charges including indecent assault of a child under 13, corruption of a minor and conspiracy with Avery. The jury deadlocked on one count, an indecent sexual assault count against Engelhardt, after deliberating since late Friday.
Shero’s lawyer, Burton Rose, described his client after the verdict as “very distraught, very distraught.” He had told jurors that his introverted, visually impaired client was an easy target for a false accuser.
Defense lawyers had argued that the troubled accuser was simply hoping for a payout from his pending civil suit against the archdiocese. His story defied belief, they said.
He initially told a church social worker he’d been raped for five hours by Engelhardt after Mass; beaten and tied with sashes by defrocked priest Edward Avery; and raped by Shero at school. None of those details emerged in his trial testimony.
“(He) is the walking, talking personification of reasonable doubt,” argued defense lawyer Michael McGovern, representing Engelhardt, a 66-year-old Oblate of St. Francis.
The accuser’s account got a boost when Avery entered a surprise guilty plea last year. But Avery startled the courtroom this month when he testified that he never touched the accuser, saying he took the 2-1/2- to five-year deal to avoid a longer sentence at trial.
Williams called that turn of events something fit for a “Law and Order” episode.
“He pleaded because it was a good offer,” Avery’s lawyer, Michael Wallace, said Wednesday. “(Jurors) think that anybody who walks down the street with a collar is guilty.”
Rose and Engelhardt were taken into immediate custody. They each face more than a decade in prison when they are sentenced in April. Their relatives were inconsolable.
The victim now lives in Florida and was not in court, although his parents were. He told jurors he’d been clean for a year, after 23 stints in drug rehabilitation.
Thousands of people have accused priests around the country of abuse, but the complaints were routinely locked in secret archives. Several states, including Pennsylvania, then extended the time limit for child sex-abuse victims to pursue criminal or civil action, although victim advocates want to see additional reforms.
Philadelphia prosecutors saw their chance to renew their exhaustive, but stalled, investigation into priest abuse with the policeman’s son, whose claims were viable under the new statutes.
Williams decided to charge Monsignor Lynn because Avery had been transferred to the boy’s parish even though he admitted to church officials that he had abused a teen in 1992. Lynn is appealing his conviction.
In September, Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of a misdemeanor for failing to report a priest known to possess child pornography.
The victims’ advocacy group Bishopaccountability.org recently began posting the secret church documents aired at the Lynn trial. And the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was forced to make many of their secret archives public.
“The Philadelphia archive will show why statutes of limitations must be reformed in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and why Lynn and Finn will not be the last church officials to be held accountable,” Bishopaccountability officials said.