By entering the statutory equivalent of the guilty plea, the former St. Jerome’s teacher earned his freedom for the first time in more than four years.
Former St. Jerome School teacher Bernard Shero has always maintained his innocence to any accusations that he sexually assaulted a student known as “Billy Doe” 17 years ago, according to Shero’s attorney, Jeff Ogren.
Shero’s insistence on that point did not waver after a jury convicted him of the rape in 2013, Ogren said. And it still hasn’t wavered despite Shero’s Aug. 14 plea of no contest to a different felony sex offense stemming from the same alleged incident.
Reached by telephone in the days following his client’s new plea, Ogren said Shero, 54, made a practical decision not to fight the latest charges against him after a Philadelphia judge reversed his earlier conviction. By entering the statutory equivalent of a guilty plea, Shero earned his freedom for the first time in four-and-a-half years as part of a plea bargain with the District Attorney’s Office.
His alternative would have been to plead not guilty and likely remain behind bars, potentially for the remaining 11-and-a-half years of his original 8- to 16-year prison sentence, while his case made its way through new rounds of appeals and ultimately a retrial.
Shero would have had to find a way to pay for all of that legal representation, too.
“And even if he got a new trial, there is no guarantee that he was going to win,” Ogren, of the Bochetto & Lentz firm, told the Northeast Times. “Years would have gone by while Mr. Shero languished in prison.”
So when the DA’s office agreed to recommend a sentence of time-served in exchange for Shero’s no contest plea, it was an offer Shero couldn’t refuse — even with the new felony conviction on his record, 10 years of probation and a Megan’s Law reporting requirement imposed by Common Pleas Court Judge Ellen Ceisler.
“There’s no choice when the alternative is sitting in jail for 16 years,” Ogren said, referring to the maximum Shero would have had to serve on his original sentence.
The District Attorney’s Office has declined a request for comment on the plea agreement. Ogren declined the Times’ request to interview Shero, who is re-acclimating himself to life outside prison, the attorney said. Shero’s parents and sister have been helping him, just as they supported him throughout his incarceration, Ogren said.
Shero did his time at the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale in Clearfield County. It’s a four-and-a-half-hour drive from St. Jerome’s in the Northeast’s Holme Circle neighborhood. The prison is about one hour west of State College. Shero’s family would make the drive every other week to visit him. Then they would drive home.
It had become tedious on everyone involved, including Shero’s 77-year-old father.
“(Shero) had the ability to end that” with his Aug. 14 plea, Ogren said.
Shero had his own age to think about, too.
“Accepting this arrangement also makes sense when you consider he’s 54 years old,” Ogren said. “Rebuilding his life is a lot easier at 54 than it would be 11 years from now.”
According to the defense attorney, early parole was not possible for Shero as long as he maintained his innocence. If he wanted a parole board to consider letting him out after the minimum eight years, Shero would have had to admit to the crime and demonstrate remorse.
“Mr. Shero to this day has never admitted to committing any crimes … and he never will admit to it because it didn’t happen,” Ogren said.
Then how was he convicted of raping a St. Jerome’s altar boy in 2000? Throughout Shero’s appeals, his defenders have claimed the prosecution improperly withheld evidence that would have undermined the credibility of “Billy Doe” — the same accuser who also provided critical testimony leading to the convictions of two allegedly abusive priests and a monsignor who supervised them.
One of the convicted priests, the Rev. Edward V. Avery, initially pleaded guilty to abusing “Billy Doe,” but later recanted his plea under oath, stating he only admitted his guilt because he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in prison. As part of a plea agreement, he was sentenced to two-and-a-half to five years in prison. Without a plea, he faced the possibility of decades in prison.
Another convicted priest, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, died in prison in November 2014 with an appeal pending.
Like Engelhardt, Monsignor William Lynn has always claimed innocence throughout his 2012 trial and child endangerment conviction as well as two successful Pennsylvania’s Superior Court appeals. The state’s Supreme Court reinstated the conviction once, but affirmed the Superior Court’s second reversal last August.
The DA’s office has filed to retry Lynn, but a trial date has not been set. A status hearing is scheduled for Oct. 20.
Meanwhile, Shero is coping with his own practical decision to accept severe sanctions for a crime he claims he didn’t commit, sanctions that could have been much worse had he continued to fight the charges.
“Logically, I could imagine it is frustrating that one has to report as a sex offender when one doesn’t believe he has committed the offense,” Ogren said. ••
William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or email@example.com. Follow the Times on Twitter @NETimesOfficial.