An ex-priest’s testimony in the trial of two men accused of molesting a Northeast altar boy could fuel legal maneuvers to free Monsignor William Lynn, who was convicted last year in a history-making sexual abuse case.
Edward Avery, who pleaded guilty to molestation charges in 2012, last week testified he had never touched the boy whom the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and former St. Jerome school teacher Bernard Shero also are accused of sexually abusing.
Avery, 70, told jurors in Common Pleas Court that he did not indecently assault the 10-year-old St. Jerome parish altar boy in the late 1990s. Prosecutors had called Avery to the witness stand in the trial for Shero and Engelhardt.
Avery’s testimony could aid Lynn because the monsignor was convicted of endangering children in connection with Avery’s alleged crimes. Prosecutors had charged Lynn, as secretary for clergy, had allowed Avery to remain in ministry even though Lynn knew Avery was a molester.
Avery’s statement in Engelhardt’s and Shero’s trial last week could be used in a motion to get bail for Lynn, the monsignor’s lawyer, Thomas Bergstrom, said Tuesday.
Avery last week testified he had only a slight acquaintance with Engelhardt, a priest the alleged victim said had molested him first, and that he didn’t know Shero, 49, a former parish school teacher who also is charged with assaulting the boy.
Avery’s stunning statement came a day after the alleged victim ended his testimony. Judge Ellen Ceisler has issued a gag order in the trial, preventing all parties from talking about the case. The prosecution rested its case on Tuesday morning.
The former priest, looking frail and tired after 10 months in prison, for the most part agreed with Assistant District Attorney Mark Cippoletti’s recap and explanation of his March 2012 guilty plea before Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina.
But under continued questioning, Avery said, “I pleaded guilty to avoid a lengthy prison term.”
He added, “I didn’t want to die in prison.”
He said he never “had any contact” with the man who testified that the then-priest had sexually abused him twice when he was a boy in the spring of 1999.
Bergstrom said he is awaiting transcripts of Avery’s Jan. 17 testimony, adding that he had not talked to his client but knows Lynn is aware of Avery’s testimony. The lawyer said Lynn’s family members had informed him of it.
“It’s his call,” whether to renew a bail motion before Superior Court, Bergstrom said during a phone interview. Lynn has been incarcerated since he was convicted on June 22. He was sentenced to three to six years in prison.
Lynn is appealing his conviction. If the appeal is successful, Bergstrom said, using Avery’s testimony “becomes academic.”
However, if that appeal fails, the attorney said, Avery’s testimony could be used in a request for a new trial.
Bergstrom on Tuesday said Avery’s recent testimony did not come as a surprise.
“We found out that was his position back in late August or early September,” he said, but added that it was too late to affect the outcome of Lynn’s trial, which concluded in late June 2012.
What he doesn’t understand, Bergstrom said, is why prosecutors called Avery as a witness.
“They had to know he wouldn’t be helpful,” Bergstrom said.
The attorney said he didn’t believe it was completely accurate to say Avery recanted his guilty plea.
“He is not looking to withdraw his plea,” Bergstrom said, adding that Avery never testified that he had abused the boy who said he was molested first by Engelhardt, then by Avery and then by Shero.
Bergstrom said he had read the transcript of Avery’s March 22 guilty plea and he said the defrocked priest was never asked if he had molested the boy.
Avery was sentenced to two and a half to five years. If he serves his full term, he’ll be 75 on release.
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 has 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.
On Jan. 15 and 16, Avery’s alleged victim, now 24, testified in graphic detail that Avery molested him after Engelhardt, now 66, had done so once during the 1998-99 school year. The young man also testified he was sexually assaulted once by Shero, his sixth-grade homeroom teacher at St. Jerome’s parish school, in 2000.
Michael McGovern, Engelhardt’s attorney, asked Avery if he had ever conspired with his client.
“Absolutely not,” Avery said.
Prosecutors have maintained that Avery molested the boy after hearing about how Engelhardt allegedly abused the youth.
Avery said he worked at the time as a chaplain at Nazareth Hospital and was there from 3 a.m. to 8 p.m. most days. He said he had little contact with Engelhardt although both men lived on the same floor of St. Jerome’s rectory in the Northeast.
During his testimony on Jan. 17, Avery said he was almost destitute, but when asked by Cippoletti, Avery agreed that it was true that he had sold a property for $1 million before he went to prison last year. He also said the alleged victim had filed a civil suit against him.
On Jan. 16, Burton Rose, who is Shero’s lawyer, and McGovern asked about the alleged victim’s use of marijuana, heroin and hallucinogenic drugs, rehabilitation tries and arrests. The witness was also asked why he didn’t report his assault allegations immediately. The witness said he had begun smoking marijuana after he said he was molested when he was 11. He said he went on to taking pills and using hallucinogenic mushrooms, LSD and heroin.
He said he didn’t report the assaults when he was a child because he was afraid and believed he did something wrong.
“I was scared I was going to get into trouble,” he said.
Shero and Engelhardt were arrested in early 2011, but the investigation that led to their arrests began in 2009 when the alleged victim told the archdiocese and then the District Attorney’s Office about what he said happened to him in the 1998-99 and 1999-2000 school years at St. Jerome.
A grand jury began looking into allegations against Engelhardt, Avery and Shero in 2010. While those investigations were taking place, the panel started probing the Rev. James Brennan and Monsignor Lynn. All five were arrested in February 2011 and were scheduled to go on trial together. Initially, they all pleaded not guilty.
Lynn, who went on trial with Brennan last March, is the first member of the country’s Roman Catholic hierarchy to be charged with endangering children, not for touching any children, but for allegedly shielding priests and for keeping them in their ministries, where they would have contact with children.
Avery pleaded guilty before the trial began. The jury was hung in the charges against Brennan, who will be retried in March.
Bergstrom said Lynn, who is incarcerated in Waymart state prison in Wayne County, Pa., is doing as well as can be expected in prison.
“He lost forty-four pounds,” Bergstrom said. “He’s in good shape. He stays busy with reading … He spends a lot of time in prayer.” ••
Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or firstname.lastname@example.org