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Former altar boy testifies of sexual abuse at trial of two Philadelphia priests

By Sarah Hoye, CNN
updated 6:56 PM EDT, Wed April 25, 2012
Monsignor William Lynn was responsible for investigating reports of sexual abuse by priests in Philadelphia.
Monsignor William Lynn was responsible for investigating reports of sexual abuse by priests in Philadelphia.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Victim was 10 when abuse occurred, and the priest responsible has been convicted
  • Of the two now on trial, one is accused of trying to rape a 14-year-old, the other of a cover-up
  • Witness also alleges abuse by a priest and a teacher, who will go on trial in September
  • A number of alleged victims of clergy abuse have testified since the trial began March 26

Philadelphia (CNN) -- A former altar boy molested in a church sacristy testified Wednesday in the child sexual abuse and conspiracy trial of two Philadelphia priests.

"He told me God loves me, this is what God wants, and it was time for me to become a man," the witness told jurors.

Just days before the trial began, defrocked priest Edward Avery of the Philadelphia Archdiocese pleaded guilty to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and conspiracy to endanger the welfare of a child after admitting that he sexually assaulted the 10-year-old altar boy during the 1998-99 school year. Avery, 69, was sentenced to two-and-a-half to five years.

Currently on trial are the Rev. James Brennan, who is accused of the attempted rape of a 14-year-old, and Monsignor William Lynn, who is accused of covering it up. Lynn is the first high-ranking church figure charged with child endangerment for shuffling predator priests from parish to parish.

Lynn, who was the secretary for clergy under former Philadelphia Archbishop Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, is accused of knowingly allowing Avery and Brennan access to children despite allegations of sexual abuse of minors. From 1992 until 2004, Lynn was responsible for investigating reports that priests had sexually abused children.

Both have pleaded not guilty.

Before the witness described his ordeal, Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti showed jurors his grade school photo. The image of him with a small smirk and wearing a blue polo shirt and sleeveless sweater vest faced the jury as he described his extracurricular activities at a Catholic grade school in northeast Philadelphia.

The boy, now in his 20s, was in the fifth grade when Avery undressed with him in a small storage room, told him that God loved him, had him engage in oral intercourse and then ejaculated on him.

When asked why he didn't tell anyone about the incident, he said he was "too scared."

"I thought that I would get into trouble and that no one would believe me," he said. "I thought I did something wrong, and, he's a priest."

The witness also alleges abuse by the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, who was a priest at the same parish, as well as by Bernard Shero, a teacher at the school. Engelhardt and Shero go on trial in September.

He described a life of substance abuse, a suicide attempt and a criminal history including drug possession that he testified came as a result of the sexual assault by Avery.

He said he did not tell anyone about the abuse until 2009, after a group therapy session for his drug use.

Although jurors were told that Avery is no longer on trial, they have not been told that he pleaded guilty. His guilty plea does not require him to testify.

Lynn's defense attorneys argued earlier this week before Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina that they did not want Avery's guilty plea entered into the court record out of fear that it would taint the jury.

Assistant District Attorney Patrick Blessington said that if the defense attacked the witness's creditability, the prosecution would tell the jury that Avery pleaded guilty to the molestation only, and not to a conspiracy charge.

After the witness's testimony, defense attorney Jeff Lindy, with less ferocity than usual, told the court he had no questions for the witness, opting not to cross-examination him.

A number of alleged victims of clergy abuse have testified since the trial began March 26, but Avery's accuser is the first whose claim falls within a statute of limitations.

He is part of a 2011 Philadelphia grand jury report.

Sarmina did not rule Tuesday on whether or not to allow the jury to hear about the guilty plea and added that she would "wait and see" how the defense proceeded during cross-examination.

Before the former altar boy's testimony, jurors heard from another former altar boy who said Avery molested him in the late 1970s.

Now in his late 40s, the man told jurors that Avery moonlighted as a disc jockey, spinning records at various events, from weddings to bar gigs.

When he was 15 years old, the witness said, he assisted Avery at one of his DJ gigs at a Philadelphia bar. While there, the boy and the priest were served large amounts of alcohol, and he eventually passed out inside the bar.

After the gig, Avery took him to a church rectory to spend the night, where they shared the same bed at the behest of the priest because the couch was "covered with clutter." At one point, he said, he awoke to Avery's hand on his genitals.

"I really didn't know what to think. I really admired this guy. I hero-worshiped him," said the witness, who is now married with five children and living in North Carolina.

During a ski trip to Vermont when the boy was 18, Avery slept in the same bed with and fondled his genitals, the former altar boy said.

"I felt betrayed, I felt unsafe, I felt confused," he said.

He also broke down in tears as he read a letter he sent in 1992 alerting the archdiocese of the abuse, and a letter he wrote directly to Avery, while members of the jury looked away and instead followed along by reading the letter enlarged on courtroom monitors.

Despite the allegation, prosecutors say Lynn and other high-ranking church officials assigned Avery to the parish, where he had access to minors and where he abused the fifth-grader in the sacristy.

Testimony has been heated as teary witnesses have taken the stand, describing the alleged abuse by dozens of diocesan priests during overnight stays, at vacation homes or at parish rectories.

The trial has provided a rare behind-the-scenes portrait of one of the largest Catholic archdioceses in the United States, with nearly 1.5 million members. In addition to the graphic testimony, hundreds of pages of internal personnel files of priests accused of child sexual abuse -- some of them confidential -- are now part of the court record.

Two separate grand jury reports accused the archdiocese of failing to investigate claims of sexual abuse of children by priests.

A 2011 report led the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office to criminally charge four Philadelphia priests and a parochial school teacher with raping and assaulting boys in their care, while Lynn was accused of allowing the abusive priests to have access to children.

Prosecutors also plan to call Monsignor Kevin Quirk to the witness stand next week. A West Virginia judge ordered Quirk to testify, noting he was a "necessary and material witness," according to court documents obtained by CNN. Quirk presided over Brennan's 1996 canonical trial for an alleged sexual abuse of a minor.

A gag order barring all parties involved in the criminal case from talking to the media imposed by a Philadelphia judge remains in effect.

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