Publicly, the new Philadelphia judge assigned to preside over the trial of the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and former parochial school teacher Bernard Shero – charged with sexually assaulting the same 10-year-old altar boy in 1998 and 1999 – told lawyers on Friday that the trial would start Oct. 22 and that was a "date certain."
That's legal jargon for drop-dead, take-it-to-the-bank, be-there-or-be-in-handcuffs certain.
And it was. For almost two hours.
Then, according to the official court docket – the public record of the case – it was changed to Jan. 7. The docket doesn't say if that's a "date certain" although it does say Common Pleas Court Judge Ellen Ceisler attached all counsel for trial (legal jargon for "I have first dibs.") on that date.
We don't know more because the debate about the new trial date, as well as several motions about what may or may not be introduced as evidence, was conducted in chambers by judge, prosecution and defense lawyers and the record sealed from public view.
In one of Ceisler's last statements Friday before judge and lawyers disappeared behind the closed door, she told them to file any substantive motions involving evidence under seal.
"At this point, I want to keep our jury pool as untainted as possible," Ceisler said.
What could possibly taint the jury? Perhaps the three-month long trial that drew international attention and ended June 22 with the conviction of Msgr. William J. Lynn on a count of child endangerment involving another priest's sexual assault on the same 10-year-old altar boy allegedly molested by Engelhardt and Shero.
Lynn, 61, though not personally accused of sexually molesting minors, became the first Roman Catholic church official – he was secretary for clergy, charged with investigating wayward priests, from 1992 to 2004 -- charged and convicted for the sexual crimes of priests he supervised.
Lynn is appealing his conviction while currently serving his sentence of 3 to 6 years in the state prison in Waymart in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
In early 2011, an investigating Philadelphia County grand jury recommended the charges against Lynn, Engelhardt, Shero, defrocked priest Edward Avery and the Rev. James J. Brennan as part of its broad look at allegations that some priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sexually abused children and were covered for by church officials.
Avery, 70, pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting the altar boy at St. Jerome's parish in Northeast Philadelphia on March 22, a week before he was to be tried with Lynn and Brennan, and was sentenced to 2-1/2 to 5 years in prison. The same jury that convicted Lynn could not decide the case against Brennan, 49, who will be retried March 6 for the attempted rape of a boy, 14, in 1996.
As for Engelhardt, 65, and Shero, 49, Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina granted a defense motion for them to be tried separately because neither was under the direct authority of Lynn. Engelhardt remains a priest but was removed from ministry in 2009. He now lives in a house under supervision of his independent religious order, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. Shero was a sixth-grade teacher at St. Jerome's parish school.
Sarmina was supposed to preside over the trial of Engelhardt and Shero set to begin Sept. 4 but that date was shelved when Engelhardt's attorney, Michael J. McGovern, had two deaths in his extended family in one week.
When the parties reassembled before Sarmina on Sept. 7, the window she had carved out of her schedule of back-to-back homicide trial had closed. Sarmina had the trial transferred to Ceisler and assigned a new trial date of Oct. 22 – over the pleas of McGovern, who told Sarmina he and his wife had a prepaid flight and hotel reservations to San Diego, Calif. to be present for the birth of their first grandchild.
As it turned out, fate and a new judge seemed to smile on McGovern's plans. Ceisler, at Friday's hearing, appeared to have her own scheduling problems. With all the publicity from the earlier trial, Ceisler said she was worried it might take more than a week or two to empanel a 12-member jury to fairly judge the case against Engelhardt and Shero.
So Jan. 7 it is. Date certain.