The leadership of St. Jerome Parish is remaining silent in the wake of the convictions of a former parish priest and school teacher on charges that they sexually assaulted an altar boy. The St. Jerome flock, though, hopes attention soon turns away from the scandal and back toward all the good things they say are happening at the Holme Circle-based Catholic church.
“We love the parish,” said Ron Starkman, speaking for himself and his fiancée, Nancy Andonucci. “The people here are very nice.”
The Rev. Dennis P. Boyle, pastor at St. Jerome, did not respond to several requests for an interview. Sharon Nendza, the school principal, did not return a call.
At Sunday’s 11 a.m. Mass, there was no public mention of the criminal trial and the jury’s verdict, announced last Thursday. The parish deacon did not discuss it in his homily. The lector called for prayers for cops, firefighters and military members during the general intercessions, but not for young victims of sexual abuse. The visiting priest who celebrated the Mass even offered a prayer for fans of the team that would go on to lose the Super Bowl that night.
The abuse happened more than a decade ago. Parishioners don’t excuse it, but prefer to dwell on their positive experiences with the church.
When a Times reporter tried to engage church-goers about how St. Jerome would move on after the trial and verdict, they responded by talking about what they liked about parish life.
Somebody mentioned that priests administer Communion to shut-ins. One noted all the activities during the recently completed Catholic Schools Week. Another pointed to the church hosting a World Day of Prayer event on March 1. And another recalled that many parishioners still volunteer at Aid For Friends — the Far Northeast charity that provides meals for homebound senior citizens and which once had a trailer outside church and an office at the Holme Circle Shopping Center.
Javier Lopez was helping his daughters sell Girl Scout cookies in the church lobby. He has children in first and seventh grades at the school and another who graduated and is now a high school sophomore.
“The teachers are very nice, and the priests are always reaching out to you,” he said.
The brother-and-sister team of Walt Blichasz and Kathy Rosenzweig was selling weekly parish jackpot tickets.
Blichasz has been a parishioner for 35 years and sent three children to the school.
“I love the parish. They’ve done good by me and my family,” he said.
Tony Perpetua is an usher during Mass and carries the collection up to the altar during the presentation of the gifts. He and his wife, Kathy, say they go to church because of their faith.
“I go to Mass for God,” she said.
Meanwhile, the priest and former teacher convicted of molesting the St. Jerome student in the late 1990s are facing the possibility of lengthy prison terms.
The Rev. Charles Engelhardt, 66, faces a maximum sentence of 37 years in prison and ex-teacher Bernard Shero, 50, faces a maximum of 57 years.
Common Pleas Court Judge Ellen Ceisler, who presided over their nine-day trial, set sentencing for April 18.
The jury found Shero guilty on all counts. The panel found Engelhardt guilty on all counts except one. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the charge of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child.
Immediately after the verdicts were read on Jan. 30, Ceisler revoked bail and ordered the men to be held in protective custody. Engelhardt and Shero are incarcerated in the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility on State Road.
Burton Rose, Shero’s attorney, said his client would appeal the convictions. Engelhardt’s lawyer, Michael McGovern, said he, too, will appeal.
“We believe there are numerous bases to reverse the conviction,” McGovern said in an interview on Friday.
He said his client is facing no mandatory minimum sentence.
McGovern said he “firmly believes” in Engelhardt’s innocence. He said the verdict “shocked, disappointed and baffled me to my core.”
Engelhardt was accused of assaulting the boy, who was 10 years old at the time, after he caught him sipping leftover wine after a Mass at St. Jerome’s Church. Prosecutors said Shero, a teacher at the parish school, offered the boy a ride home in his car, and instead stopped at Pennypack Park and raped him in a parking lot.
Engelhardt, an Oblate of St. Francis DeSales, was convicted of endangering welfare of children, corruption of minors, indecent assault of a person less than 13 years of age and conspiracy.
Shero was convicted of rape of a child, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child, endangering welfare of children, corruption of minors, and indecent assault of a person less than 13 years of age.
The victim, now 24 years old and living in Florida, testified during the trial, as did his mother and father. The victim was not in court when the verdict was read.
In his testimony, the victim said Engelhardt molested him during the 1998-99 school year when he was a St. Jerome’s fifth-grader. He said the priest had referred to the time he had asked him personal questions and had shown him pornography, and the time he had sexually abused him as “sessions.”
During the same school year, the victim testified, another priest, Edward Avery, told him he had heard about the boy’s “sessions” with Engelhardt and that theirs would soon begin.
The victim told jurors that Avery molested him twice.
Avery, who has been defrocked, pleaded guilty to two molestation charges before he was to be tried in March 2012. He is now 10 months into a prison sentence of two and a half to five years.
Wearing prison clothing, Avery testified at the Engelhardt-Shero trial.
He said he pleaded guilty to molestation charges to avoid a lengthier prison term, but denied he had ever touched the victim or discussed him with Engelhardt.
The jury deliberated over four days.
“The victim in this case has shown exceptional courage,” District Attorney Seth Williams said after verdicts were announced. “Not only did he have the strength to report his abuse, he had the tenacity to look his abusers in the eye and testify in front of complete strangers about the horrific details of his attacks.
“I hope this verdict will help him to continue with the long journey of healing that comes after such trauma. This is an important day for all institutional abuse victims. It is not an easy thing to overcome decades of cover-up and a culture of silence. This verdict will help put an end to the blind eye and the deaf ear with which so many victims of abuse have been received.”
Engelhardt, Avery and Shero were arrested in February 2011 after a grand jury investigation of sexual abuse by Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic clergy.
During the course of that probe, grand jurors became aware of allegations against the Rev. James Brennan. Both he and Monsignor William Lynn, who had investigated child-abuse allegations as the archdiocesan secretary for clergy, were arrested.
Lynn was not accused of touching a child. He faced two counts of endangering children for allowing Brennan and Avery to continue in ministries in which they could have contact with children. Lynn also was charged with conspiracy.
Lynn and Brennan were tried togeter in March. Lynn was convicted of one count of endangering children and was sentenced to three to six years in prison. He is appealing his conviction.
The jury couldn’t reach verdicts on the charges against Brennan. He will be retried on March 6. ••