An ex-priest who last year pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a 10-year-old St. Jerome’s altar boy will testify for the prosecution in the trial of two other men accused of molesting the same child.
That child, now a 24-year-old man, also will be a witness against the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and former Catholic lay teacher Bernard Shero along with Edward Avery, who pleaded guilty in March 2012 to assaulting the boy.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys on Monday made their opening statements in what is the second trial stemming from a 2011 Philadelphia grand jury report on sexual abuse by the city’s Roman Catholic clergy.
Assistant District Attorney Evangelia Manos and defense lawyers Michael McGovern and Burton Rose all described the alleged victim as a troubled man with a history of drug abuse, drug rehab attempts, suicidal fantasies and run-ins with the law.
Manos told jurors the man’s life was damaged by the alleged abuse. McGovern, who represents Engelhardt, said testimony will show all the trouble began years after the abuse allegedly occurred and continues to the present. While still at St. Jerome’s in the Northeast, McGovern said, he was active, involved and “the all-American boy.”
“The prosecution’s star witness,” McGovern said, has given several very different versions of what he said the defendants did to him while he was in fifth and sixth grades in the late 1990s.
“It’s nonsense,” said Rose, Shero’s attorney.
“I know he is a damaged person, a broken person,” McGovern said, stressing that the man’s life was not affected by his client.
Rose said it was his client whose life has been ruined by the accusations that he had abused a little boy. Shero, he said, tried to commit suicide after he was accused, but not because he admitted doing anything to the boy. Rose said Shero’s suicide note was to his family, telling how he knew the charges would humiliate them.
The alleged victim’s mother testified Monday that her son’s life remains troubled and that he has a drug charge pending from November 2011.
As the prosecution’s first witness, she said her son was a happy and active kid while in grade school. But after his beloved grandmother died in late 2002, he changed. Her son was expelled from Archbishop Ryan High School during his freshman year when he was caught with drugs and brass knuckles. She said she and her husband first thought her son was acting out after his “mom-mom’s” death.
She said she first heard her son say a priest had abused him sometime after he turned 18.
Shero has pleaded not guilty to charges 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. Engelhardt pleaded not guilty to charges of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child, endangering welfare of children, corruption of minors, indecent assault of a person less than 13 years of age and conspiracy.
Shero and Engelhardt were arrested in early 2011, but the investigation that led to the arrests began in 2009 when the alleged victim told the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and then the District Attorney’s Office about what happened to him in the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 school years at St. Jerome.
A grand jury began looking into allegations against Engelhardt and Avery in 2010. While those investigations were taking place, the panel started probing the Rev. James Brennan, Shero and Monsignor William Lynn. All five were arrested in February 2011 and originally were scheduled to go on trial together. Initially, they all had pleaded not guilty.
Engelhardt, Avery and Shero were charged with molesting the St. Jerome’s pupil; Brennan was charged with molesting a Bucks County teen. Lynn, however, became the first member of the country’s Roman Catholic hierarchy to be charged with endangering children, not for ever touching a minor, but for allegedly shielding priests who had.
Engelhardt’s and Shero’s attorneys successfully argued to have their clients’ cases separated from the other three.
Avery pleaded guilty before the trial began in March 2012. Jurors were hung on charges against Brennan. They acquitted Lynn of conspiracy and one endangerment charge, but they found him guilty of another. Prosecutors had said Lynn had endangered the St. Jerome pupil by keeping Avery in ministry despite knowledge that he was a child molester.
Avery is serving a term of two and a half to five years in prison. Lynn, who is appealing his conviction, is serving three to six years. Brennan will be retried.
On Monday, Manos said the man who she said was molested by Engelhardt, Avery and Shero when he was a boy, was subjected to vile acts by men trusted by his parents, both lifelong Catholics,
“Why would they ever imagine or think that anyone who would hurt a child or abuse a child would be in their midst?” Manos asked jurors.
It was Engelhardt, who caught the boy drinking sacramental wine after a Mass, who first abused him, Manos said. After asking the boy personal questions to “feel him out,” she said, he later molested him, knowing the boy “would have to confess his own misdeeds if he told his parents.”
Manos gave jurors a graphic description of the boy’s encounter with Engelhardt, concluding with, “These vile acts that were perpetrated on this little boy he called ‘sessions.’”
Avery, who lived at St. Jerome’s down the hall from Engelhardt, was next, she said.
“He resumed the sessions,” she said.
Shero allegedly orally raped and tried to anally rape the boy during the next school year, Manos said.
“These crimes happen in private,” she said, telling jurors that, if they believe the uncorroborated testimony of a sexual abuse victim, they may convict a defendant.
McGovern said people looking at a Roman collar nowadays see a bull’s-eye. “There is a presumption of guilt,” he said.
But his client is innocent, he added.
The case against Engelhardt has “no ring of truth, but a mountain of reasonable doubt.”
The victim’s father is a longtime Philadelphia police officer, McGovern said.
What predator picks a cop’s son? he asked. “It defies common sense.”
McGovern said the victim is suing the archdiocese and the three men he said abused him.
Because so many years had passed between when the abuse allegedly occurred and the time charges were brought, there is no physical evidence.
Rose said the witness against his client had “found a way to explain away his own bad choices.”
Shero had been bullied as a child, and as a teacher at St. Jerome, which is why he quit his teaching job there — his first such job.
Testimony resumes Tuesday in Courtroom 304 of the Criminal Justice Center, 13th and Filbert streets. ••