PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Exceeding sentencing guidelines, a judge on Wednesday handed down prison terms of at least six years to a Roman Catholic priest and a former teacher in a sex-abuse case that brought down a Philadelphia church official.
The Rev. Charles Engelhardt of Wynnewood and Bernard Shero of Levittown maintained their innocence, and the judge threw out the most serious conviction against Engelhardt for lack of evidence. Still, Engelhardt, a 66-year-old Oblate who had not previously been accused of abusing children, was sentenced to six to 12 years in prison. And Shero, convicted of rape, was sentenced to eight to 16 years.
"I've accepted this injustice and I will continue to do so until it is righted, because I believe it will be righted," said Engelhardt, who has lost 50 pounds since the accusation surfaced in 2009. "I had no interaction with (the accuser) in any way."
Shero, also speaking in court for the first time, said his visual impairments and awkwardness made him an easy target. He said he never had any problems with his accuser in his sixth-grade class at St. Jerome's Parish school in the late 1990s. The accuser was not in court but was represented by his parents — a nurse and policeman who struggled for years with their son's severe heroin addiction.
"I had absolutely no problems with (him). I remember him being a great kid," Shero, 50, told the packed courtroom, divided in its support for abuse victims and accused priests and teachers. "Thank God I had my family behind me. Mr. and Mrs. (Doe), thank God (he's) got you. That's a wonderful thing."
Engelhardt said he does not remember the accuser, who testified that he started smoking marijuana at age 11 and has been through 23 rehabilitation attempts and several stints in jail. The young man's abuse complaints led to the landmark conviction of Monsignor William Lynn, the former secretary for clergy at the Philadelphia Archdiocese who had transferred now-defrocked priest Edward Avery to St. Jerome despite concerns he was a pedophile. Lynn, convicted of child endangerment, is serving three to six years.
The young man initially said he had been raped by Avery, Engelhardt and Shero during middle school, but he gave differing accounts over time of what sex acts occurred and, in Shero's case, where they took place. He said Avery and Engelhardt raped him in the church sacristy in between morning masses.
Common Pleas Judge Ellen Ceisler rejected a motion to throw out the January verdict and order a new trial, saying jurors came to their conclusion with care. "In the end, they believed the victim. They found him credible," Ceisler said.
Prosecutors, she said, had explained some of the inconsistencies, noting that one statement was given after the accuser was ambushed by a church investigator while high on heroin. She found no evidence, though, that Avery and Engelhardt had conspired to assault the same boy, and she threw out Engelhardt's conviction for conspiracy to sexually assault a minor. But Ceisler said the potential nine-month sentence he faced on the remaining charges — child endangerment, indecent assault and corruption of a minor — "shocked my conscience" given the damage done to the victim and his family.
"We cannot allow adults in positions of authority ... to abuse that trust and destroy lives without meaningful consequences," Ceisler said. The convictions mean the young man's civil lawsuit against the archdiocese has been proven, with only damages left to determine, according to family lawyer Slade McLaughlin.
"These were heinous crimes committed against a young boy, and the sentences were appropriate for what happened to him," McLaughlin said Wednesday. Said defense lawyer Burton Rose, who represents Shero: "The money angle cannot be disregarded here."