A former Catholic lay teacher accused of molesting a juvenile won’t have to stand trial with four other defendants, a Common Pleas Court judge ruled Tuesday.
Bernard Shero, who taught at St. Jerome’s parish school in Winchester Park, was the only layman accused in a case that involves two priests, an ex-priest and a monsignor.
Their combined trial, scheduled to begin at the end of March, is expected to last four months.
But Judge Lillian Ransom agreed with Shero’s attorney, Burton Rose, that the former teacher had nothing to do with the cases against the other men and ordered that Shero should be tried separately.
Shero is charged with molesting a St. Jerome pupil. He also had been charged with conspiracy, as are the other defendants, but that charge was quashed by Ransom during a late July hearing.
In February, Shero, Monsignor William Lynn, James Brennan, Edward Avery and Charles Engelhardt were arrested after a Philadelphia grand jury released its report on sexual abuse of minors by the city’s Roman Catholic clergy. All but Lynn face sexual molestation charges.
“There is no evidence Shero had anything to do with or even knew Avery or Engelhardt,” Rose told the trial judge, M. Teresa Sarmina, on Friday.
In July, Rose unsuccessfully had argued before Ransom that, since there was no conspiracy charge, Shero should stand trial separately.
Rose tried again on Friday, then telling Sarmina, that the commonwealth has not linked his client’s alleged crimes to the allegations against the other defendants.
On Tuesday, Sarmina referred Rose’s motion back to Ransom, who agreed to reconsider her earlier ruling and then granted Shero’s request to be tried alone — after the other defendants’ trial is over. Ransom then deferred to Sarmina to set a trial date. Shero’s trial will begin Sept. 4.
The District Attorney’s Office began looking into Avery’s and Engelhardt’s activities in 2009 after the archdiocese notified authorities of complaints against the two men. Avery since has been defrocked.
Engelhardt, an Oblate of St. Francis DeSales, was accused of molesting a 10-year-old boy in the sacristy of St. Jerome’s Roman Catholic Church in 1998 and ’99. The grand jury said Engelhardt then told Avery about the boy, and that Avery subsequently began molesting the child.
Shero, who taught at St. Jerome’s parish school, began sexually abusing the boy the next year, grand jurors wrote. The victim is now an adult.
Rose had argued that there was no evidence his client even knew Avery and Engelhardt. He said the only “commonality” the men had was their alleged victim.
Although the other defendants are facing sexual abuse charges, Lynn, who was Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua’s secretary for clergy, is facing child endangerment charges. Grand jurors said Lynn had endangered children by allowing Brennan and Avery, whom he had investigated for sexual misconduct with minors, to continue to live or work in Philadelphia parishes.
At last Friday’s hearing, Rose argued Shero had nothing to do with Lynn either, because he was employed directly by the parish school and was not an employee of the archdiocese.
“Elementary schools are not subject to archdiocesan approval,” he told Sarmina.
The grand jury said Lynn knew of previous allegations involving a minor and had ordered Avery to get therapy. Grand jurors said Lynn ignored recommendations to keep Avery away from children and had him assigned to St. Jerome’s parish.
During the course of the probe, investigators began looking into allegations Brennan had molested a Chester County boy in 1996. Grand jurors said Lynn knew of previous allegations against Brennan but had transferred him anyway. Brennan was assigned to St. Jerome’s in 1997.
On Jan. 4, Sarmina will hear motions to separate Engelhardt’s case from the other defendants’ joint trial. On Jan. 23, attorneys will meet in Sarmina’s courtroom to settle any outstanding issues about what evidence will be allowed at the trial.
During last Friday’s hearing, Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington complained that the archdiocese had circulated a memo instructing its priests and employees that they must contact the archdiocese before they talk about the case with any representatives of law enforcement or the news media.
Blessington said potential witnesses told the district attorney’s office they weren’t supposed to talk without consulting the archdiocese.
Attorney Robert Welsh told Sarmina that he had been retained by the archdiocese and advises employees and priests they have a right to counsel, but he has instructed them to talk to law enforcement officers. He said Philadelphia archdiocesan employees have been contacted by the media, other prosecutorial offices and other diocese.
“We are instructed to be honest,” he said.
Sarmina made no ruling on the matter Friday. The Northeast Times requested a copy of the memo from the archdiocese, but the request was refused by a spokeswoman, who cited a court-imposed gag order.
Jury selection is set to begin Feb. 21. ••
Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or firstname.lastname@example.org