Alleged victim in priest-abuse trial has his day in court

“You know, don’t you, that your testimony is completely false?” a defense attorney on Wednesday asked a former Northeast man who had testified that two priests and a Catholic lay teacher had molested him when he was 10 and 11 years old.

“You know it couldn’t have happened,” said Michael McGovern, who represents the Rev. Charles Engelhardt.

The Oblate of St. Francis DeSales and ex-teacher Bernard Shero are on trial this week on charges they sexually assaulted the witness in the late 1990s when he attended St. Jerome parish school in the Northeast and served at the church as an altar boy.

Defense lawyers questioned the witness, now 24 and living in Florida, for the first time Wednesday, a day after he had given the court a detailed — and graphic — account of how Engelhardt had molested him in St. Jerome’s sacristy after a Mass during the 1998–99 school year and how he said Shero had orally raped him — and tried to anally rape him — in a car the next year.

In between assaults by Engelhardt and Shero, the witness said, he was molested by another priest, Edward Avery, who last year pleaded guilty to charges he had abused the boy. Avery, now an ex-priest, is serving two and a half to five years in prison. He is expected to testify for the prosecution, perhaps Thursday afternoon.

McGovern and Shero’s attorney, Burton Rose, asked the witness about different versions of his abuse that he had given to archdiocesan social workers and to a detective from the District Attorney’s Office. Repeatedly, the witness said he had no memory of what he had said. Although attorneys continued to question him on details of those conversations, the witness, who has had years of drug problems, drug rehabilitation attempts and arrests, would not change his answer.

“I don’t remember,” he said.

One of the details of the witness’ account of abuse was that he was assaulted on a day he was working as a member of the church’s “bell maintenance crew,” a group of pupils who set up bells for St. Jerome’s bell choir.

McGovern asked the witness, who had said he was assaulted by Engelhardt and Avery while in fifth grade and by Shero while in sixth grade, if he would be surprised to learn that no pupils from those grades worked on the bell maintenance crew.

McGovern pointed out that some of the assaults were described as taking place after an early-morning Mass in a sacristy. That church anteroom near the altar was small and could be accessed by several doors, including one that led directly from the school, McGovern said. He said other priests and altar servers could be coming in at any time to set up for Masses.

“It would be a crazy place to rape someone, wouldn’t it?” he asked.

Later, Assistant District Attorney Mark Cippoletti asked the witness how much time there had been between Masses. The answer was: almost an hour.

On Wednesday, Rose and McGovern asked about the witness’ use of marijuana, heroin and hallucinogenic drugs, rehabilitation tries, arrests, why he didn’t report his assault allegations immediately and his lawsuit against the archdiocese.

The witness said he had begun smoking marijuana when he was 11 and went on to taking pills, hallucinogenic mushrooms and LSD as well as heroin. The witness said he has been sober for a year, has a job at a relative’s business in Florida and lives alone.

He said he didn’t report the assaults when he was a child because he was afraid and believed he did something wrong.

ldquo;I was scared I was going to get into trouble,” he said.

As far as his pending lawsuit is concerned, the witness said, it was filed to put a stop to abuse by priests.

“No money would make this better,” he said.

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 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.

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 ever touching any children, but for allegedly shielding priests who had done so, and for keeping them in their ministries, where they would have contact with kids. Avery had pleaded guilty before the trial. Jurors were hung on charges against Brennan, who will be retried in March.

Engelhardt’s and Shero’s attorney’s successfully argued to have their clients’ cases separated from the other three.

Lynn, who was convicted and sentenced to three to six years in prison, is appealing the verdict. On Monday, his attorneys filed a motion requesting the state’s Superior Court to order the trial judge, M. Teresa Sarmina, to render an opinion on the appeal.

Testimony resumed today in Courtroom 304 of the Criminal Justice Center, 13th and Filbert streets. ••

Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215–354–3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com