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Priest abuse accuser faces tough questions

Memory varies on locations of rapes by priests, teacher

PHILADELPHIA — A longtime heroin addict whose complaint helped imprison a Philadelphia archdiocesan official came under attack Wednesday, as jurors in a priest abuse trial learned that he had given three different locations for one alleged rape.

Defense lawyers questioning the gaunt, 24-year-old policeman’s son poked several holes in his accounts, some of which he attributed to years of heavy drug use.

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The man said he was ‘‘semicomatose . . . but standing’’ when he first spoke with a church investigator in 2009.

The witness, with prompting from a counselor, had called the archdiocese from a drug clinic, ultimately reporting that two Roman Catholic priests and former teacher Bernard Shero had sexually assaulted him in about 1999.

Shero, 49, of Levittown, and the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, 66, of Wyndmoor, are on trial, fighting the charges. Former priest Edward Avery is in prison after he pleaded guilty.

During cross-examination Wednesday, Shero’s lawyer said the accuser has said over the years that the teacher raped him in his sixth-grade classroom, near a trash bin outside an apartment complex, and in the parking lot of a city park.

The accuser explained that he was high when he spoke to the church investigator in a car outside his parents’ house, and doesn’t remember much of the conversation. His drug habit at times reached 15 to 20 bags of heroin a day, the young man acknowledged.

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‘‘You have a very clear memory of what happened when you were 10 years old, but you don’t remember what happened in the car in 2009?’’ asked Engelhardt’s lawyer, Michael McGovern.

The abuse allegedly started with Engelhardt in the fifth grade, and continued that year with Avery. Avery raped him in the sacristy after Mass when he was a 10-year-old member of the church’s bell maintenance crew, the witness said.

But under cross-examination, McGovern said the school only allowed eighth-grade boys to join the bell crew. The witness said that surprised him.

The man’s complaint led to last year’s child endangerment conviction of the Rev. William Lynn, who oversaw priest assignments at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1992 to 2004. Lynn acknowledged that he sent Avery to St. Jerome’s Parish in northeast Philadelphia even though Avery had admitted to an earlier abuse complaint. Lynn, 62, is serving a three- to six-year prison term for felony child endangerment.

Avery, serving 2½ to 5 years, is expected to testify for the prosecution on Thursday. He would be the first admitted pedophile priest to testify in open court during the 11-year investigation of church abuse within the Philadelphia archdiocese.

The accuser also has sued the archdiocese. Observers watching the trial this week include his civil lawyer, a juror from the Lynn trial, and the father of a young man who committed suicide after filing a priest abuse lawsuit against the church.

The accuser’s father, now a police sergeant, also testified. He poignantly described the trauma the family experienced as his once-joyful, extroverted son descended into heavy drug use and suicidal behavior — and refused to tell them what was wrong.

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