PHILADELPHIA – A jury on Wednesday convicted a priest and teacher in a pivotal church-abuse case that rocked the Philadelphia archdiocese and sent a church official to prison for child endangerment.
The verdict supports accounts by a 24-year-old policeman's son that he was sexually abused by the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and sixth-grade teacher Bernard Shero in about 1999.
The accuser's 2009 complaint describing abuse by two priests and the teacher led to Monsignor William Lynn's landmark conviction last year for endangerment. Lynn is serving three to six years in prison for his role transferring an admitted pedophile priest to the accuser's parish in northeast Philadelphia.
The young man said the abuse started after Engelhardt caught him drinking altar wine in fifth grade. He said Engelhardt told fellow priest Edward Avery about their "session," prompting Avery to twice sexually assault the boy. And he said Shero raped him in a car a year later, after driving him home after detention.
The jury convicted Shero of rape, indecent sexual assault and other charges, and Engelhardt of indecent assault of a child under 13, corruption of a minor and conspiracy with Avery. The jury deadlocked on one count, an indecent sexual assault count against Engelhardt.
Defense lawyers argued that details of his story defied belief, and said the troubled young man was simply looking for a payout from his pending civil suit against the archdiocese.
"OK, so he sued the archdiocese," Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti argued to jurors Friday. "Who can blame him? ... No dollar amount could fix this, and never could."
Defense lawyers attacked the credibility of the accuser, who has battled a heroin addiction since his teens, and gave varying accounts of where and how the alleged abuse occurred.
He told the social worker he'd been raped for five hours by Engelhardt after Mass; beaten and tied with sashes by defrocked priest Edward Avery; and raped by Shero at school.
"(He) is the walking, talking personification of reasonable doubt," argued defense lawyer Michael McGovern, who represents Engelhardt, a 66-year-old Oblate of St. Francis.
The accuser's account got a boost when Avery entered a surprise guilty plea last year. But Avery startled the courtroom this month when he testified that he never touched the accuser, saying he took the plea to avoid a longer sentence at trial.
A lawyer for Shero, 49, described his visually impaired client as an easy target who had been taunted by classmates growing up and by students as an adult. That portrait led Cipolletti to wonder aloud why he went into teaching.
Reminding jurors of the big picture, McGovern urged jurors to resist the "groundswell presumption of guilt throughout this country" when priests are accused of molesting children.
Thousands of people have accused priests around the country of abuse, but the complaints were routinely locked in secret archives. Several states, including Pennsylvania, then extended the time limit for child sex-abuse victims to pursue criminal or civil action, although victim advocates want to see additional reforms.
Philadelphia prosecutors saw their chance to renew their exhaustive, but stalled, investigation into priest abuse with the policeman's son, whose claims were viable under the new statutes.
District Attorney Seth Williams decided to charge Monsignor William Lynn, the former secretary for clergy at the archdiocese, with child endangerment because Avery had been transferred to the boy's parish even though he admitted to church officials that he had abused a boy previously.
Lynn was convicted in the landmark case in June, and is serving three to six years in prison. He is appealing his conviction.
In September, Kansas City Bishop Robert Finn was convicted of a misdemeanor for failing to report a priest known to possess child pornography.
The victims' advocacy group Bishopaccountability.org recently began posting the secret church documents aired at the Lynn trial. And the Archdiocese of Los Angeles was forced to make many of their secret archives public.
"The Philadelphia archive will show why statutes of limitations must be reformed in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and why Lynn and Finn will not be the last church officials to be held accountable," Bishopaccountability officials said.