Witness in priest sex-abuse trial: I was molested
A 24-year-old former Northeast Philadelphia resident on Tuesday pointed to the two men he said molested him when he was 10 and 11 years old and said that abuse changed him and changed his life.
Testifying in open court for just the second time, the witness identified former St. Jerome elementary school lay teacher Bernard Shero, 49, and the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, 66, as two of three adults who molested him when he was a pupil and altar boy at the Northeast parish. Both accused men have pleaded innocent to sexual assault charges. Engelhardt also has pleaded not guilty to a conspiracy charge.
Before he was to go on trial last year, the third man, ex-priest Edward Avery, pleaded guilty to assaulting the witness in St. Jerome’s sacristy in the late 1990s. He currently is imprisoned but is expected to testify for the prosecution sometime this week or next.
On the stand Tuesday, the young witness, who now lives and works in Florida, told Assistant District Attorney Mark Cippoletti that Engelhardt caught him in a church bathroom drinking sacramental wine left over from an early-morning Mass at St. Jerome during the 1998-99 school year. Instead of scolding him, the witness said, the priest, an Oblate of St. Francis DeSales, told him not to do it again and to come into the sacristy, a church anteroom near the altar, and to sit down.
The witness said the priest asked him if had a girlfriend, if he had looked at pornography, and if he was interested in boys or girls.
The young man told the priest he had seen porn, and that the priest took papers and magazines from a little black briefcase. The magazines had pictures of naked men and women who were engaged in both heterosexual and homosexual acts, he said.
“I was a little scared,” the witness said. “But then, it was kind of cool.”
The witness said Engelhardt told him it was time for him to become a man and that “our sessions” would soon again.
“He said he would be seeing me soon,” the witness said.
“Soon” was sometime in the next week or week and a half, the witness said, when Engelhardt told the boy to stay behind after another early-morning Mass.
Again, he testified, Engelhardt told him it was time to become a man. He said the priest told him that God loved him and “this is what God wants.”
He said the priest told him to undress, took his own clothing off, told the boy, “just watch how it’s done” and proceeded to molest the child with oral sex.
The young man said Engelhardt told him he had “done a good job” and that God loved him. After that, the witness said, he avoided the priest as much as a he could.
Again, the witness told Cippoletti, he told no one about what had happened to him.
Months later, he said, Avery, who lived at the parish rectory, told him he had heard of his “sessions” with Engelhardt and that theirs would begin soon.
He described in detail two occasions in which those sessions involved oral sex with Avery in a church storage room. The witness said Avery, who worked part time as a disc jockey, had him strip to music during the first “session.”
At one point during that first time, the witness said, Avery tried to put his finger in the boy’s rectum.
“I screamed,” he said.
He told no one what had happened, he said. Two weeks later, the witness said, Avery told him in was time for another “session.” He was told to strip again while Avery sat there with the weird smile he always had, the witness said. The “session” ended with the priest ordering the boy to give him oral sex, the witness said.
He told no one about that session either, he said.
The witness said he traded altar boy duties with others to avoid Avery and never had another “session” with him or Engelhardt.
During the next school year, when he was in sixth grade, he said, Bernard Shero, who was his homeroom and English teacher, offered him a ride home after a detention. Instead of taking him home, the witness said, Shero drove him to a parking lot in Pennypack Park where he molested him.
The witness said he later experienced testicular pain, vomiting and coughing.
“I lost a lot of weight,” he said.
He said he began to smoke marijuana when he was 11. Later in the next decade he used harder drugs and became addicted to heroin. His last drug-related arrest was in November 2011. He graduated from St. Jerome’s parish school but was later kicked out of Archbishop Ryan High School for having marijuana and brass knuckles.
In their opening statements Monday, defense attorneys said the witness, the son of a Philadelphia police sergeant, didn’t tell anyone of these experiences until he was older than 18 and was only claiming they occurred to make excuses for a troubled life of drug use, arrests and unsuccessful drug rehabilitation attempts — as well as suing the archdiocese and his alleged abusers.
The witness’ mother on Monday said she and her husband initially thought the dark side of her son that began to show in early 2003 when he was 14 was due to his beloved grandmother dying just months before. She said she and her husband both thought their boy was acting out because of grief.
After he had turned 18, she said, her son made a one-sentence statement that he had been abused by a priest and then did not speak of it again.
Earlier Tuesday, however, a childhood friend told the court the witness had told him about the incidents when they were alone drinking beer when they were 16.
The young witness had testified during last year’s trial of the Rev. James Brennan and Monsignor William Lynn. Jurors couldn’t reach verdicts on charges Brennan had sexually assaulted a Bucks County teen. However, they found Lynn, who had served 12 years as the archdiocese’s secretary of clergy, guilty of endangering children because he had investigated Avery, knew he was a molester and had kept him in ministry, thereby putting children at risk.
The witness also had testified before a Philadelphia grand jury but never has been questioned by defense attorneys. That is expected to occur today in Courtroom 304 of the Criminal Justice Center, 13th and Filbert streets.
Get full updates of this story in the print version of the Northeast Times.