PHILADELPHIA — An awkward, vision-impaired former Catholic school teacher was an easy target for a false rape claim made by a longtime heroin addict "gaming the system" to get money, a defense lawyer argued Thursday in a Philadelphia priest-abuse trial.
The 24-year-old accuser disclosed in drug treatment in 2009 that he had been raped as a boy by two priests and sixth-grade teacher Bernard Shero. A counselor helped him lodge a complaint that day, and he later filed a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
Philadelphia prosecutors relied on the troubled young man's story – still viable under newly extended legal time limits – to file an explosive 2011 grand jury report. They charged the three men with passing the boy around, but also filed then-unprecedented charges against a church official for sending accused priests to new assignments.
The church official, Monsignor William Lynn, was convicted at trial last year. The accuser testified in that trial, but he was never cross-examined.
That changed last week, when testimony revealed his story had changed significantly over time. In January 2009, he said he'd been violently raped by the Rev. Charles Engelhardt for five hours; assaulted by Shero in a classroom; and beaten and tied up. None of those details emerged from his testimony, which put the Shero attack in a parked car.
In his closing argument Thursday, lawyer Burton Rose asked why Engelhardt and a second priest would disclose their crimes to Shero.
"Why would a priest tell a lay person they're not friendly with: `Hey, I committed a felony and you should too?'" Rose asked.
The accuser also didn't describe any of the "grooming" activities – such as wrestling and horseplay – that are hallmarks of child sexual-abuse cases, he said.
And no other students ever accused Shero or Engelhardt of molestation.
"Mr. Shero is awkward. He's socially inept. But he's not a child rapist," Rose argued, before retrieving a suicide note Shero had written on the eve of his arrest last year. He had taken sleeping pills, but survived.
Shero, 49, removed his thick glasses and sobbed quietly at the defense table as the note was read aloud.
The note thanked his mother for supporting him through 23 eye surgeries for his congenital vision problems. She had refused to send him to a school for the blind, thinking he should learn to survive in a seeing world. But Shero endured a lifetime of harassment that started when classmates stole his lunch, and continued into his teaching days at St. Jerome's, when children threw rocks at his nearby home, according to testimony.
The accuser, the son of a nurse and city policeman, described Shero as "touchy-feely" and a "close talker." A classmate recalled that he had once snapped a girl's bra strap.
Neither Shero nor Engelhardt chose to testify, leaving the jury to decide the case almost solely on the accuser's credibility.
They will also have to weigh the guilty plea of the other accused priest, Edward Avery. Now defrocked, Avery had admitted to church officials that he had abused another boy in 1992. Then he was sent to St. Jerome's. Five other men have accused him of abuse in recent years.
On the witness stand last week, the 70-year-old Avery said he'd engaged in horseplay and other improper behavior, but he denied ever touching the trial accuser. He said he took the 2 1/2- to five-year plea to avoid dying in prison.
"People take guilty pleas for a lot of reasons," Rose argued Thursday.
A lawyer for Engelhardt, a 66-year-old Oblate of St. Francis, was to make closing remarks Friday. Prosecutors will then make their case to the jury.