A steel door slides open with a clank, and a guard escorts a middle-age prisoner, dressed in white, into a cinder-block visitors' room.

Peter Schellinger, a convicted murderer, will spend the next two hours alleging in painful detail how a priest sexually abused him dozens of times while he was an altar boy in 1969.

"He murdered my soul," says Schellinger, 55. "He ruined my life."

Three weeks later, footsteps thud down the staircase of a law office in Norristown, and a lawyer escorts a man, dressed in black, into a paneled conference room.

For the next hour, Msgr. John A. Close, 67, will emphatically deny every one of Schellinger's allegations. "That's a lie," he says again and again. He compares the accusations leveled against him to the wounds suffered by Jesus.

"I will stand before God free of guilt," he proclaims.

Schellinger's detailed accusations and Close's emphatic denials epitomize the challenge posed by thousands of decades-old abuse allegations involving Catholic priests across the country. Hard evidence is often lacking, there are seldom any witnesses, and those who sit in judgment often have little beyond one person's word against another's.

Despite some cases that have received wide attention, most allegations against Catholic clergy have been decided - and often dismissed - in private, by proxies appointed by bishops, with evidence and outcomes closely guarded.

Schellinger vs. Close would have remained sealed in the files of the Philadelphia Archdiocese - which seven years ago deemed the allegations "not substantiated" - had it not been for an extraordinary development in February.

A Philadelphia grand jury, the second to examine such cases, produced an explosive report that accused the church hierarchy of harboring more than two dozen priests suspected of abuse.

The report set in motion events that, taken together, starkly reveal the limitations and shortcomings of the archdiocese's confidential investigations.

As a result of the grand jury's findings, judgments rendered in secret were suddenly openly questioned. The church's own review board, which advises Cardinal Justin Rigali on whether alleged abusers should remain in ministry, publicly criticized the archdiocese for withholding information.

But for Schellinger and Close, one consequence stands above all others: Church leaders, reacting to public pressure, for the first time released from the pulpit the names of accused priests. Allegations of abuse previously investigated by the church are being examined anew, this time by a former sex-crimes prosecutor.

With a second judgment now assured, can Close - former rector of the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul - still prevail against Schellinger?

Soon after Close's suspension was announced from the pulpit of St. Katharine of Siena Parish in Wayne, where he served as pastor, a man now living in North Carolina received a call from an old high school friend in Philadelphia.

Close, their former principal, was among the priests under investigation.

At that, the man hung up.

For almost two decades he had harbored a dark secret.

Now he weighed what to do, and how much to say.

'A nice, caring guy'

Who among you is an altar boy?

It was June 1969. The question, Schellinger said, came from the new vicar and was addressed to the eighth-grade class at Christ the King Parish in Northeast Philadelphia.

Schellinger was 13. Close was 25.

After sharing his dream of becoming a priest, Schellinger said, he soon found himself in lengthy conversations with Close.

"He seemed like a nice, caring guy," Schellinger recalled.

About a week later, he said, Close set up a mock altar in the sacristy, where the clergy don vestments, and began instructing Schellinger in the rituals and prayers that a priest says at Mass.

Schellinger said he had played the role of priest. As he acted out the consecration of bread and wine at Close's instruction, Schellinger said, the priest would wrap an arm around him and raise a glass of altar wine to his lips. Once he was drunk, he said, the priest would abuse him.

"In some way," he said, "I felt compelled to oblige."

There were no witnesses to what Schellinger says happened 42 years ago in the church sacristy - or to the abuse he alleged took place that year at a beach house that Close owned in Margate, N.J.

Many of the people who might have verified key aspects of Schellinger's story are dead, and accounts vary widely on important facts. Significantly, two of his own brothers say they don't believe him. They say he was never even an altar boy, though a childhood friend recalled that he was.

Nevertheless, Schellinger's detailed account of sexual assaults has been consistent in scores of letters he has written over the years to advocates for abuse victims and to The Inquirer.

His recollection is vivid. Asked in a prison interview to describe a floor plan of the sacristy, Schellinger used a reporter's pen and notebook to draw the rooms behind the altar where priests dress for Mass and altar boys don their cassocks. He sketched its windows, cabinets, hallway, doors, chairs, and sink.

A visit to the church found the rooms exactly as he described.

Of middle height, with a shaved head and graying goatee, Schellinger said the abuse that began in the sacristy had continued at a beach outing for altar boys in Margate after Close managed to isolate him from the others.

In all, he said, the priest molested him dozens of times. It did not stop until late August, when Schellinger told his mother, who tearfully reported his story to their pastor.

Schellinger identified the pastor as the Rev. Robert J. McGee, and recalled that he had given them his blessing as he escorted him and his mother to the rectory door.

In their car after the meeting, his mother hugged him and assured him that "everything's going to be all right," he said. "But nothing was ever right for me after that. Nothing."

McGee and Schellinger's mother are now deceased.

Decades later, Schellinger said, scenes from the sacristy began appearing in his dreams. In 1998, he called Philadelphia police to report the abuse, but he said detectives had told him the statute of limitations on the crimes had expired. Schellinger also called the archdiocese, but "they never called back," he said.

Donna Farrell, spokeswoman for the archdiocese, declined to comment on any aspect of Schellinger's allegations.

Close, reflecting on events alleged to have happened more than four decades ago, is unequivocal in his defense. Asked directly if he had ever had sexual contact with Schellinger or any other minor, he replied without hesitation: "Positively no."

Slightly built, bespectacled, and with thinning gray hair, Close wore a black clerical suit and a Roman collar during a recent interview. Sitting beside his lawyer, William H. Pugh V, Close dismissed the allegations as the musings of a "sociopath." He questioned why anyone would believe a convicted murderer who denies committing the very crime for which a jury found him guilty.

As a young priest, Close said, he did take groups of boys to his house in Margate, but never overnight as Schellinger described. Moreover, he said, he does not even remember Schellinger.

Close challenged Schellinger's assertion that they met when he first visited the eighth grade in June 1969. "I didn't arrive at the parish until after school was out," Close said.

He also noted that McGee, the pastor to whom Schellinger said his mother had reported the assaults in late August that year, did not arrive at the parish until October - a fact confirmed by the archdiocese.

Suspended from his parish, his name publicly linked to the abuse scandal, Close awaits his fate. The toll on him and his family has been immense, he said.

One of his grandnephews recently came home and said he had heard that "Uncle Johnny is a child molester," Close said.

"It's devastating to who I am . . . to what I've tried to be, to the priesthood I've cherished for 42 years," he said. "It's my reputation that's at stake here."

If the archdiocese's review of the case came down to one man's word against another's - and what evidence there was has not been made public - Schellinger's troubles with the law could have reflected poorly on him.

On Oct. 5, 1998, the year he took his allegations of abuse to the authorities, his life collapsed. That day, a former girlfriend, Janice Markovic, was choked and beaten to death in her trailer in Middletown, Del., while her two children slept. Her 14-year-old son told police that he had awakened to find Schellinger in his bedroom, holding a knife.

The boy told authorities that Schellinger had stabbed him and that he had run from the room, bleeding. He and his sister reported that Schellinger had chased them around the trailer until they fled to a neighbor's house.

Schellinger drove off in Markovic's Subaru, but he crashed the car on Main Street. A state trooper who responded to the accident said Schellinger had told him, "I killed her."

"Who?" the trooper said he asked.

"Jan."

A jury convicted Schellinger of murder and attempted murder. He was sentenced to two life sentences plus 20 years.

He denies it all.

"I'm in prison serving a double life sentence for something I didn't do," he said.

'A matter of credibility'

Whether the archdiocese adequately investigated Schellinger's allegations against Close - as well as those against other priests - lies at the heart of the grand jury's criticism of the church.

In its stinging report in February, the panel castigated the church for allowing known abusers to remain in ministry. In some cases, the grand jurors said, church officials ignored compelling evidence and dismissed abuse allegations as "unsubstantiated."

"These are simply not the actions of an institution that is serious about ending sexual abuse of its children," the panel wrote.

The church investigated Schellinger's abuse allegations in 2004 and, after interviewing him, relatives, and Close, dismissed his case as "not substantiated."

Church officials will not say what evidence they gathered in that investigation seven years ago, and would not explain what influenced Rigali's decision.

Members of the archdiocese review board that advises the cardinal on abuse cases have defended their work, saying they did the best they could with the evidence that church officials provided.

Board members declined to comment on Schellinger's accusation and their recommendation to keep Close in ministry, saying they had a policy of not publicly addressing individual cases.

Two members said that, generally speaking, a finding of "not substantiated" does not mean they disbelieved a victim. Rather, they said, it means that based on the evidence before them they could not say for certain whether abuse had occurred.

"It comes down to a matter of credibility: which of two versions of events is most credible," said Anne Shenberger, a member of the review board.

She said a criminal history would not necessarily cause the board to disbelieve an accuser.

"It's still possible for someone who's been convicted of a crime to tell the truth on some things," she said. "On the priest's side, it doesn't mean just because someone's a priest they don't tell falsehoods.

"You're always weighing the credibility of both sides."

The board's nuanced definition of "not substantiated" is important because of what happened to Schellinger vs. Close the first time the case was examined.

While the archdiocese told Schellinger in a letter that its inquiry could not establish whether abuse had occurred, Rigali in effect cleared Close in writing.

Close, in the interview, produced a letter from the cardinal and offered it as evidence of his innocence. In it, Rigali decrees: "Every step possible must be taken to restore the good name of Reverend Monsignor John A. Close."

Seven years after the decree, Close again is under investigation, this time by former prosecutor Gina Maisto Smith, who will review all abuse allegations against priests in active ministry. Since the release of the names and Smith's appointment, church officials say, scores of victims have contacted the archdiocese with reports of abuse and requests for help.

Smith has assembled a team that includes a forensic psychiatrist, a psychologist who specializes in treating sex criminals, a pediatrician who works with victims of child abuse, and two former Philadelphia police officers who investigated sex crimes.

They will interview the suspended priests and their accusers, search for witnesses, and seek evidence to corroborate or rebut a complaint. Smith has said she expects to turn over her findings to Rigali in six to nine months. He will decide if the accused should be restored to ministry, retired, or permanently removed and defrocked. Criminal liability in these cases depends on when the abuse occurred.

Schellinger's previously dismissed accusations against Close were among those Smith decided warranted further investigation - and were serious enough that he should be suspended.

Schellinger said he was hopeful that the latest investigation would substantiate his accusations.

"I hope they do investigate him - a real investigation, not like the sham they did" in 2004.

A new accuser

He was 14, a freshman at Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster. It was the spring of 1992.

Close, the principal, came by his locker one day and asked him to stay after school.

The job was to help set up for a Mass in the auditorium the next day. At one point, he said, Close led him up to the stage and, in the semidarkness behind the curtains, groped and fondled him and demanded sex.

The assaults, he said, continued every few weeks, through his junior year.

Now 33, he sits in the living room of his house in North Carolina. Dark-haired, bearded, and casually dressed, he agreed to speak on the condition that The Inquirer not publish his name.

He said he had been abused in the darkened auditorium beneath the glow of a red exit sign and behind the locked door of a science lab. "He had keys to everything."

"I think he just saw somebody weak and easy to manipulate," he said. "It was a perversion of power."

The abuse ended in 1994, he said. That year, church records show, Close was transferred to St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Levittown.

For 17 years, the man said, he told no one.

Then, in late March, came the call from the friend in Philadelphia who told him about the grand jury report and mentioned Close.

Within weeks, the man would tell his story, first to his friend, then to the archdiocese, law enforcement officials, and The Inquirer. Law enforcement officials declined to investigate because the statute of limitations on any crimes had expired.

The church has opened an inquiry, and he said members of Smith's team had asked him for an interview.

Ana Maria Catanzaro, chairwoman of the archdiocesan review board, would not comment directly on Close's case, but said the emergence of a second accuser "absolutely" changed the equation.

Since he reported the abuse, the man said, the archdiocese has been paying for his psychotherapy and medication for depression so severe that simply getting through each day is a struggle.

The secret he had harbored for so long has taken a toll, the man said. He suffers from depression, anxiety, thoughts of suicide, and alcohol abuse. He has few friends and has worked only intermittently.

A student at a community college, he is enrolled in only one course. A full class schedule, he said, overwhelmed him.

He is nervous about talking to Smith and her investigators, he said, because they are being paid by the archdiocese and he is skeptical of its past handling of abuse cases.

"I realize I have to deal with this for the rest of my life," he said, "but I can't keep running."

Waiting for judgment

The accusation by his former student is as inexplicable - and false - as that of Schellinger, Close said. As with Schellinger, the priest said, he has no recollection of the man who was his student 17 years ago in Warminster.

Suspended from his church, awaiting a verdict, Close said his life was now defined by "solitude and prayer."

He is grateful for the many calls and expressions of support. But he worries that his flock may think the worst of him.

"Their pastor has been lumped together with those who are accused of being pedophiles and child abusers," he said.

Each day, Close said, he performs the Stations of the Cross - the sequence of 14 plaques in every Catholic church that depict the events of Jesus' death - and pauses before the image of the Crucifixion.

"Lord," he said he prays, "I know your feeling, your suffering, your pain, being nailed to the cross as an innocent victim."

And every day he prays for his accusers, sometimes echoing Jesus' final words in the Bible: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

He questions whether he can return to parish life, even if the cardinal reinstates him.

"Could I be effective there, in the face of doubt?" he asked. "I don't have the answer to that."

Msgr. John A. Close's Assignments

Pastor, St. Katharine of Siena Parish, Wayne:

 June 2006 to present.

Pastor, Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul:

June 2000 to June 2006.

Chaplain, Legatus, Philadelphia Chapter:

 November 1997 to present.

Vice rector for institutional advancement, St. Charles Borromeo Seminary: June 1996 to June 2000.

Pastor, St. Michael the Archangel Parish, Levittown: May 1994 to June 1996.

Administrator, Regina Coeli Residence for Priests, Warminster: November 1991 to May 1994.

Principal, Archbishop Wood High School, Warminster: July 1990 to May 1994.

Chaplain, St. Mary of Providence Center, Elverson: June 1987 to July 1990.

Principal, St. Pius X High School, Pottstown:

June 1987 to July 1990.

Faculty, St. James Catholic High School for Boys, Chester: July 1984 to June 1987.

Chaplain, Assisi House of the Sisters of St. Francis, Aston: June 1982 to June 1987.

Faculty, Cardinal O'Hara High School, Springfield:

June 1972 to July 1984.

Assistant pastor, St. John the Evangelist Parish:

June 1972 to September 1972.

Chaplain, Serra Club of Philadelphia:

 February 1971 to June 1972.

Assistant pastor, Christ the King Parish:

June 1969 to June 1972.

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Contact staff writer David O'Reilly
at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.
Contact staff writer Nancy Phillips
at 215-854-2254 or nphillips@phillynews.com.
Inquirer staff writer Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.