Judge rules defendants in civil priest sex abuse case cannot question accuser until after criminal case wraps up

By Jon Campisi | Nov 4, 2011

A Catholic priest and a religious school teacher accused in a civil suit of molesting a former Philadelphia altar boy cannot question their accuser until after the criminal court proceeding against them is complete, a Philadelphia judge has ruled.

During a motion hearing Nov. 1 in front of Common Pleas Court Judge William J. Manfredi, lawyers for the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and former Catholic schoolteacher Bernard Shero were told their clients would be unable to question their accuser, identified in court papers only as “Billy Doe,” until the criminal trial, scheduled to take place in February 2012, is over.

Philadelphia attorneys Slade H. McLaughlin and Paul A. Lauricella, of the firm McLaughlin & Lauricella, P.C., had filed the civil action on behalf of “Billy Doe” on July 25. The plaintiff, now in his early 20s, who attended St. Jerome School in Northeast Philadelphia from 1993 to 2002, had alleged in his complaint that the two defendants, as well as one other priest, Edward Avery, sexually abused him while he served as an altar boy.

The plaintiff’s true identity has been shielded because the alleged sexual crimes occurred while he was a minor.

Also named in the lawsuit are former Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua and William Lynn, who was secretary of clergy for the Archdiocese during the time of the alleged abuse.

Lynn was named as a defendant because his job involved overseeing church personnel.

The civil complaint alleges that Avery engaged in physical abuse of the plaintiff similar to that of Engelhardt.

It also alleges that Bevilacqua and Lynn “knew, or had reason to know, that Avery was a pedophile, child molester, and/or sexual predator who posed a danger to children,” at the time he was assigned to St. Jerome.

The complaint accuses the church higher-ups of turning a blind eye to the abuse that was taking place on their watch.

Engelhardt, the suit claimed, used his “position of authority, control and power so as to command Plaintiff to perform repulsive and abusive acts of sexual abuse.”

The suit claims that Engelhardt performed oral sex on the plaintiff and forced the plaintiff to reciprocate. It also says Engelhardt instructed the boy to fondle the priest’s genitals.

The complaint further accuses Shero, who worked as a Sunday schoolteacher, of “outrageously, unconscionably and unlawfully” orally and anally raping the plaintiff and forcing him to perform “depraved sexual acts on Shero.”

According to their respective criminal docket sheets, Engelhardt, Shero and Avery are being charged with various sex crimes, including aggravated assault without consent, endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of minors and conspiracy.

Engelhardt’s attorney, Thomas R. Hurd, of the Philadelphia firm of McElroy, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter, declined to comment on the ruling when reached by phone Wednesday.

Hurd cited the gag order in the criminal case “prohibiting the lawyers from speaking [and] although I don’t know that that would necessarily” affect his ability to address the civil case, he would rather not talk about the matter, he said.

Plaintiff’s attorney McLaughlin, however, had no problem speaking about Judge Manfredi’s ruling saying, “There’s no gag order in the civil case.”

McLaughlin said he was pleased with the judge’s ruling prohibiting the defendants from interrogating their accuser at this stage of the game.

“My position was that really isn’t appropriate here,” McLaughlin said in a phone interview with the Pennsylvania Record. “There should be a stay of discovery until after the criminal trial is over.”

Lawyers for Engelhardt and Shero had wanted to take the plaintiff’s deposition and subpoena his medical and personal records, but McLaughlin objected, saying because the criminal trial is mere months away, anything related to the civil case should be put on hold.

Part of McLaughlin’s rationale was that if the defendants were convicted in the criminal trial, it would mean McLaughlin wouldn’t have to prove liability in the civil case.

“I think that was persuasive to Judge Manfredi,” McLaughlin said.

The plaintiff’s attorney said if the criminal trial were to be put on hold, or some other extenuating circumstances arose, he could understand the desire to move forward with elements pertaining to the civil case. But as it stands now, discovery probably won’t get underway until sometime next summer.

“We’re sort of at a standstill right now, which is fine with us,” McLaughlin said.

The lawsuit was filed amidst an alleged widespread culture of sexual abuse by priests and other laypersons within the Philadelphia Archdiocese that has been outlined in two grand jury reports, one in 2003 and the other this year.

The grand juries were convened by former Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne Abraham and the city’s current top prosecutor, Seth Williams.

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