05 September 2012
By Joseph A. Slobodzian
Inquirer Staff Writer
Tuesday’s scheduled start of jury selection in the trial of a former Philadelphia priest and a Catholic schoolteacher on charges they sexually abused a 10-year-old altar boy was postponed after deaths in the extended family of a defense attorney.
Philadelphia Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina set a status hearing Friday but announced that her trial schedule made it impossible for her to continue presiding.
Sarmina, one of nine judges assigned to handle only homicide trials, had been specially designated in 2011 to preside over the trials of four priests and one teacher charged after the Philadelphia grand jury report about the sexual abuse of minors by some priests in Philadelphia and efforts by archdiocesan officials to cover up the abuse.
Sarmina handled the three-month trial, which ended in June with the conviction of Msgr. William J. Lynn, the first church official charged for his supervisory role in dealing with priests accused of sexually abusing children.
Sarmina had carved out two more weeks for the trial of ex-priest Charles Engelhardt and teacher Bernard Shero. But Sarmina said she has back-to-back murder trials through the rest of the year and the new delay made it impossible for her to continue presiding in the now-delayed second trial.
Sarmina’s courtroom was set up for the start of jury selection when court officers announced that Engelhardt’s attorney, Michael J. McGovern, had two deaths in his family in the last few days: a sister-in-law in Florida and an uncle in Philadelphia.
The new judge and trial date are not known; the case will be sent to what is known as a “calendar room” for reassignment.
Engelhardt, 65, and Shero, 49, are charged with rape, sexual assault and related charges in the alleged abuse of a 10-year-old altar boy called “Billy Doe” by prosecutors.
The Inquirer has a policy of not identifying victims of sexual assault.
The assaults allegedly occurred in 1998 and 1999 at St. Jerome’s parish in Northeast Philadelphia. Engelhardt, a hospital chaplain, then lived in the rectory and Shero taught sixth grade in the parish school.
Sarmina later agreed to sever Engelhardt’s and Shero’s cases because neither was under the direct supervision of Lynn – secretary of clergy – or other church officials. Engelhardt was a priest in Philadelphia under the authority of an independent order, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales.
Avery, 69, pleaded guilty in March to sexually assaulting Billy in 1999 and was immediately sentenced to 21/2 to five years in prison.
Lynn, 61, who from 1992 to 2004 was responsible for investigating allegations against priests, was convicted of a charge of child endangerment involving Avery’s offenses. Found found guilty in June, Lynn is serving a three- to six-year prison term.
Brennan, 49, will be retried March 6 in the attempted rape of a 14-year-old boy in 1996. Brennan was tried with Lynn but the jury was unable to reach a verdict in his case and a mistrial was declared.
Engelhardt and Shero remain free on bail pending their trial.