Citing newly discovered evidence and errors made at trial, lawyers for a Catholic priest and a former parochial-school teacher jailed for sexually abusing a 10-year-old altar boy made their case to an appellate panel Tuesday for overturning the men's convictions.
Attorneys Burton A. Rose, representing former St. Jerome teacher Bernard Shero, and Michael McGovern, representing the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, alleged prosecutorial misconduct and "abuse of discretion on the part of the trial judge" who sentenced the men to prison terms in June 2013 for abuse that occurred in the late 1990s.
The lawyers said that the prosecutor repeatedly made a factual error during closing arguments and that, despite defense objections, Common Pleas Court Judge Ellen Ceisler refused to correct the record before sending the case to the jury.
In another instance, prosecutors questioned a pediatrician as if he were an expert on child sexual abuse, but without presenting him to the jury as such or allowing defense lawyers to question his credentials, Engelhardt's and Shero's attorneys said.
That doctor testified about a link between testicular pain, which the victim complained of after the assaults, and sexual abuse.
By not introducing him as an expert witness, court procedures were violated, conceivably affecting the impression jurors had of the evidence on which they based their verdicts.
"We would have gotten our own [expert] to say that it wasn't so," Rose said.
The back-and-forth arguments prompted a rhetorical question from Superior Court Judge Anne Lazarus as she sat alongside fellow Judges Sallie Updyke-Mundy and William Platt.
"Was there a quantum of errors made in this case that fundamentally deprived the defendants, little by little, of the right to have a fair trial?" Lazarus asked.
Assistant District Attorney Peter Carr acknowledged that mistakes were made, but said those errors were not harmful in the eyes of the law.
"There's not enough error, even aggregated, to justify reversing here," he said.
The panel did not issue an immediate ruling on the defense request for a new trial.
Engelhardt was found guilty of child endangerment, corruption of a minor, and indecent assault. The jury deadlocked on a count of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. Shero was found guilty of rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, child endangerment, corruption of a minor, and indecent assault.
Ceisler sentenced Shero to eight to 16 years in prison and Engelhardt to six to 12 years.
The appeal was filed a few months after the trial's end. The men are in separate state prisons.