Former Priest, Convicted of Sexually Abusing a Child, Recants Guilty Plea on the Witness Stand

By Kenneth Lipp and Dustin Slaughter


(photos from the Philadelphia DA’s Office)

(Editors note: we continue to use the pseudonym “Billy” for the victim to protect his privacy)

Defrocked priest Edward Avery took the stand in Philadelphia court this afternoon, clad in blue Department of Corrections attire, in the sex abuse trial against Father Charles Engelhardt and teacher Bernard Shero, both of whom are charged with sexually abusing “Billy” in 1999 and 2000. Philadelphia Police Detective Drew Snyder, who began investigating Billy’s allegations in 2009, testified this morning.

Prosecutor Mark Cipoletti questioned Avery to confirm his guilty plea. Avery pleaded guilty before Judge Theresa Sarmina in 2011, but to the surprise of Cipoletti, asserted that although he accepted a plea bargain from the District Attorney admitting to sexually abusing Billy, that this was not true.

I did not. I had no contact whatsoever with [Billy].

Avery says he took the plea bargain “to avoid dying in prison.” He is ten months into a 2 and a half to 5 year prison sentence for Involuntary Deviant Sexual Intercourse (IDSI) and Conspiracy to Endanger the Welfare of a Child.

After Avery recanted his 2011 admission, Cipoletti began an aggressive line of questioning confronting the witness again with his own statements contained in the plea. McGovern objected on the grounds that Cipoletti was cross-examining his own witness. The judge overruled this objection, finding that Avery’s statement allowed him to be regarded as a hostile witness.

A hostile witness is one whose testimony, on direct examination, is contrary to the legal position of the party who called the witness.

Michael McGovern, who represents Engelhardt, asked Avery if Engelhardt had ever conspired with Engelhardt to abuse Billy. Avery denied ever having done so.

It never happened, it positively never happened.

Avery claimed his only interaction with Father Engelhardt was on Wednesday evenings when he would return early from his assignment at Nazareth Hospital for “Pasta Night” at the rectory. He claimed these conversations were limited to official Parish concerns.

Detective Drew Snyder testified earlier this morning. At the behest of the prosecution, he began recounting how teacher Bernard Shero, who is charged with raping Billy in the backseat of his car in 2000, attempted suicide shortly before his arrest in February of 2011.

As Snyder read Shero’s suicide note to the jury, the defendant wiped tears from his eyes with a handkerchief.

The letter contained apologies to his family. “I’m sorry I’ve become a burden to you,” adding “I have to do this, and I think you know why.” The letter contained no explicit admission of guilt, however.

Snyder also recalled how, during the course of his investigation into Billy’s allegations, he received a letter from the Archdiocese’s crisis counselors. They interviewed Billy in 2008 after he contacted them from a rehab clinic. Billy stated to Archdiocese counselors that he had been assaulted by Shero in a classroom. He later testified during Grand Jury that the rape occurred in Shero’s car.

Throughout the week, prosecutors have defended Billy’s inconsistent statements by saying he had been under the influence of drugs at the time he spoke to counselors.

The trial resumes tomorrow morning at 9:30 at the Philadelphia Criminal Justice Center, room 304.

About Kenneth Lipp

Kenneth is a writer and researcher. He’s from Alabama, and will not apologize for it. He moved to Pennsylvania in 2012, but has been in love with Philadelphia since a late-night stroll down Ben Franklin Parkway to the Art Museum in July of 2011 with the love of his life. He is interested in telling Philadelphia’s dynamic and absolutely unique stories with the zeal of a constantly enamored newcomer. Kenneth is also passionate about government transparency and protection of whistleblowers, most notably PFC Chelsea Manning. His research and reporting on law enforcement and surveillance have been featured in various publications, including Rolling Stone (Meet the Private Companies Helping Cops Spy on Protesters) and Popular Science (Boston Tested Crowd-Watching Software That Catalogues People's Skin Color). His training is in both genetics and history and he likes the joke about being a helicase and unzipping your “genes.” He’s driven to know, and thinks you can handle, the truth. Follow him on Twitter @kennethlipp.

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