Priest Accused of Rape May Not Question ex-Altar Boy

November 01, 2011
By John P. Martin, INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

A judge said Tuesday that a priest and a teacher accused in a lawsuit of raping a Northeast Philadelphia altar boy could not question the alleged victim until after their criminal trial on the charges next year.

Common Pleas Court Judge William J. Manfredi denied the request by the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and Bernard Shero to interrogate their accuser and be given access to his medical and personal records. He said the parties in the civil case would not have to exchange evidence until next July.

The ruling followed a hearing in which a lawyer for the alleged victim, now 23, said the defendants’ request was a veiled attempt to get access to the key prosecution witness against them.

“This is a bad end-around, to get things for use in the criminal trial,” said Slade H. McLaughlin, an attorney for the man, identified in court filings as Billy Doe.

Engelhardt’s lawyer, Thomas R. Hurd, said the 64-year-old priest has been suspended from his duties for nearly three years because of the allegation, first made in January 2009. At the current pace, he said, the civil case will not be ready for court until sometime in 2013.

“His name already is destroyed,” Hurd said. “The longer this goes, the more he is prevented from doing the one thing he wants to do, which is to be a priest.”

Prosecutors say Engelhardt, Shero, and a third defendant, former priest Edward Avery, raped the boy on separate occasions when he was an altar boy at St. Jerome’s church in the late 1990s.

Shero taught at the parish school. Avery and Englehardt, a member of the Oblates of St. Francis DeSales religious order, celebrated Masses at the church.

Awaiting trial with them is a former high-ranking church official, Msgr. William J. Lynn, who faces endangerment charges for allegedly putting the priests in a position to assault children.

All of the men have pleaded not guilty. Their criminal trial is scheduled to begin in late March.

Four months after their arrests, the former St. Jerome’s altar boy sued the men, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, and Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, seeking damages for battery, negligence, and other claims. He developed a drug dependency, attempted suicide, and was admitted at least 10 times for in-patient mental-health treatment in the years after he was molested, according to the suit filed by Slade and Michael J. Boni.

In their own filings, the defendants have challenged the accusations or Doe’s right to bring them under the statute of limitations. But only Engelhardt and Shero refused to wait until after the end of the criminal case to litigate the claims.

Through his lawyer, Burton A. Rose, Shero asked to interrogate the alleged victim but said he wouldn’t make himself available for questions.

Engelhardt’s lawyer said the priest would sit for a deposition. He also filed a request seeking documents ranging from Doe’s grade-school yearbooks and report cards to his medical records and information related to his suicide attempt.

The alleged victim’s lawyer said a deposition would unfairly force him to relive the assault, something he already must do as a witness in the criminal case. He also said the outcome of that trial could lead to a quicker resolution of the lawsuit.

“There may be no need for discovery if the criminal trial goes the way I think it’s going to go,” Slade told the judge.

Manfredi said allowing discovery now, especially when four defendants agreed to delay the process, would “turn everybody upside down.” But he urged the lawyers to let him know if there were any other unforseen delays.

Hurd also told Manfredi he planned to file a motion asking that Engelhardt be tried separately from the other defendants in the civil case. He said that the claims against his client represent one allegation “against a priest who otherwise has a spotless record” over 40 years and that, as a religious-order priest, Englehardt can’t be lumped in with the other defendants or responsible for broader claims that the archdiocese protected abusive priests.

“The vast majority of that complaint and the allegations in the case have nothing to do with my client,” he said.

DO I HAVE A CASE ?

click to contact firm