Two men convicted of molesting a boy from St. Jerome parish asked for mercy last week, but got none. Mercy was Judge Ellen Ceisler’s to give, but she gave none.
Instead, the Common Pleas Court jurist handed down long prison terms to the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and former Catholic school teacher Bernard Shero, who were convicted of molesting the former altar boy in the late 1990s.
Engelhardt, 66, was sentenced to serve six to 12 years in prison. Shero, 50, got eight to 16 years. The former teacher also received a consecutive sentence of 3 1/2 to 7 years for his endangering the welfare of children conviction. Both men will have five years of reporting probation after they complete their sentences.
As those sentences were announced, the sobbing by Engelhardt’s and Shero’s friends and family was so uncontrollable that some were asked to leave the courtroom. Those supporters who remained appeared pained. The family and friends of the victim, who wore bright blue ribbons, sat grimly in their seats.
Burton Rose, Shero’s attorney, and Michael McGovern, Engelhardt’s lawyer, told the court they intend to appeal their clients’ convictions.
Before Ceisler sentenced the men on June 12, their attorneys asked the judge to grant their clients new trials, saying the evidence against the men did not merit the convictions.
“The verdict of the jury is a miscarriage of justice,” Rose said.
As they had during the trial, the lawyers questioned the credibility of the victim, who they said has given multiple versions of how he was attacked. They also pointed out that the victim, now 24, has been in numerous drug programs and has a criminal record.
The victim’s changing story “shocks the conscience,” McGovern said.
“They just don’t like the verdict,” Assistant District Attorney Evangelia Manos told the judge. “There is no new evidence in this case.”
The judge quickly brushed aside defense motions, telling the defendants that the jurors in the three-week trial in January had weighed the evidence. The verdict, she told them, was the jurors’ to make.
In a letter sent to Ceisler, the victim asked her to give Shero and Engelhardt maximum sentences. His molestation, he said, spurred a life of drug abuse and several suicide attempts.
“My life and childhood was destroyed by these men,” he wrote.
Manos told the court that Shero and Engelhardt chose occupations that helped them create appearances of respectability that “helped mask their inner selves.”
Shero’s and Engelhardt’s kin and friends made emotional appeals for leniency for what they characterized as unjust convictions. The defendants, who did not testify during their trial, in tear-choked statements, both told the judge they were innocent.
Shero said he was offered a deal if he pleaded guilty, but said he refused.
“I didn’t do it!” he said.
The Rev. James Greenfield, Engelhardt’s Oblate superior, told the judge he had never heard anything bad about the priest before accusations were made in 2009.
Greenfield asked the judge to allow Engelhardt to serve a probationary sentence in an Oblate medical facility in Maryland, but the judge sentenced the priest to prison.
Shero’s mother, Bonnie, said her son was bullied as a child because he had poor eyesight and had to wear thick glasses.
The judge also was reminded of Shero’s and Engelhardt’s previously unblemished criminal records.
Ceisler was not swayed and handed down sentences that were stiffer than the state sentencing guidelines.
“The range of guidelines does not adequately address the seriousness of these offenses,” the judge said.
The men were convicted of crimes that occurred at St. Jerome parish in Holme Circle. Prosecutors alleged that Engelhardt molested the 10-year-old altar boy inside the church and that he subsequently told another priest, Edward Avery, about the boy and that he sexually abused him, too. Further, prosecutors charged Shero, a teacher at the parish school, with molesting the same boy during the following school year.
Avery, who pleaded guilty to molestation charges before he was to be tried in 2012, denied he knew the victim, referred to as “Billy” when he testified at Engelhardt’s and Shero’s trial.
When he addressed Ceisler on June 12, Engelhardt said he did not know the victim.
Engelhardt, an Oblate of St. Francis DeSales, was accused of assaulting the boy after he caught him sipping leftover sacramental wine after a Mass at the church. Prosecutors said Shero offered the boy a ride home in his car, and instead stopped at Pennypack Park and raped him in a parking lot. He then told the boy to walk home, according to a grand jury report.
Shero had faced five counts, and jurors found him guilty of all. Engelhardt was found 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.
Engelhardt 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.
During the sentencing hearing, Ceisler vacated Engelhardt’s conspiracy conviction, saying the trial evidence “does not establish a conspiracy.”
She agreed to recommend that Shero and Engelhardt serve their sentences at the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands in Somerset, Pa.
“This prison sentence sends a clear message to sexual assault victims in Philadelphia,” District Attorney Seth Williams stated in a news release. “If you come forward, you will be heard.” ••