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Ex-priest recants abuse guilty plea

PHILADELPHIA — An imprisoned former priest at the center of a landmark Roman Catholic abuse case testified Thursday that he pleaded guilty to a sexual assault he did not commit.

Edward Avery, 70, admitted to an earlier abuse complaint, but he said he never had any contact with the accuser in another ongoing criminal trial. He said he took a plea deal because he did not want to risk a longer sentence if convicted.

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Asked if he raped the 24-year-old policeman’s son, Avery said: ‘‘I did not. So help me God.’’

The same man claims he was raped by Avery, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, and former teacher Bernard Shero, starting when he was a 10-year-old altar boy in 1999.

Engelhardt and Shero are fighting the charges at trial, which is expected to last into next week. Avery’s testimony could bolster their defense if jurors believe him over the accuser, a longtime heroin addict who testified Wednesday.

But in questioning by prosecutors, Avery conceded that maintaining his guilt would hurt him in the accuser’s civil lawsuit and perhaps subject him to harassment in prison as an admitted child molester.

A jury last year convicted Monsignor William Lynn, 62, of child endangerment for placing Avery in a parish despite the sex-abuse complaint. Lynn, who was secretary for clergy at the Philadelphia archdiocese from 1992 to 2004, called it an oversight and apologized to the officer’s son on the witness stand.

Lynn became the first US church official ever convicted for his handling of abuse complaints.

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