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Two testify in pillar of priest abuse case

The two men followed starkly different paths to the witness stand. The 49-year-old was raised in the outer suburbs, graduated from medical school, got married, and had five children. The 23-year-old from Northeast Philadelphia was kicked out of two high schools, attempted suicide, and spent much of the last decade hooked on heroin and prescription drugs.

Edward Avery pleaded guilty before the trial opened.
Edward Avery pleaded guilty before the trial opened.Read more

The two men followed starkly different paths to the witness stand.

The 49-year-old was raised in the outer suburbs, graduated from medical school, got married, and had five children. The 23-year-old from Northeast Philadelphia was kicked out of two high schools, attempted suicide, and spent much of the last decade hooked on heroin and prescription drugs.

But in tense and emotional testimony to a Common Pleas Court jury Wednesday, both former altar boys described a bond: Each said he was sexually abused by his parish priest, Edward Avery.

"God loves you, and this is what God wants," Avery allegedly told the Philadelphia altar boy after forcing him to dance a striptease and engage in oral sex at St. Jerome's Church in 1999, when the boy was 10.

Together, their testimony represented a pillar of the landmark conspiracy and endangerment case prosecutors are trying to prove against Msgr. William J. Lynn, the former secretary for clergy under Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua. They contend Lynn's failure to remove Avery from active ministry after learning of one allegation in 1992 enabled the priest to abuse the fifth grader at St. Jerome's seven years later.

Avery pleaded guilty to that assault days before the trial opened, but Lynn has denied the charges. His lawyers have portrayed him as one of the only church officials who tried to identify and isolate dangerous clerics such as Avery, but one who lacked authority to do enough.

Avery was a gregarious priest who once cultivated celebrity status in the region. He moonlighted as a frenetic, hat-wearing disc jockey at bars and parties, and he became a vocal and visible advocate for Hmong refugees in the 1980s.

"He had a lot of charisma. He was very popular with young people," the 49-year-old physician told jurors. (The Inquirer does not identify victims of sex crimes without their permission.)

The man said he became friends with Avery in the late 1970s, when he was an altar boy and the priest was an assistant at St. Phillip Neri Church in East Greenville. Avery would often take the boys on trips, including to a Jersey Shore house where the boys would drink alcohol and the priest would wrestle with them, according to the witness.

He was 15, he said, when he accompanied Avery to a disc-jockey job at Smokey Joe's bar at University City, where he got so drunk he passed out in a back hallway. Avery took him to his rectory at nearby St. Agatha-St. James Church and had the boy sleep in his bed. There, he said, Avery fondled him. He said he pretended to sleep and never confronted the priest.

"I really admired this guy," the doctor testified. "I hero-worshipped him, and I really couldn't accept that this happened."

But the same thing happened three years later, he said, when he accompanied Avery and his brother on a ski trip to Vermont.

In 1992, the man confronted Avery in a letter and sent copies to Lynn's predecessor, the Rev. John Jagodzinski. The accuser said he didn't want money or scandal.

"I wanted to know that he wasn't a risk," he testified under questioning from Assistant District Attorney Jacqueline Coelho.

Lynn interviewed the priest and his accuser in fall 1992. Avery denied the allegation, but Lynn still recommended that he be removed from his post as a pastor at a Mount Airy parish and sent to St. John Vianney, the archdiocese-owned hospital where accused priests were treated. Lynn also identified Avery as "Guilty of Sexual Misconduct with Minors" in a list of suspected priests he drafted in 1994.

Defense lawyer Thomas Bergstrom highlighted records that show Lynn had notified Bevilacqua one day after hearing the accusation. And he showed the witness memos that suggest Lynn met, wrote, or talked by phone with him more than a half-dozen times in the four months that followed.

"Msgr. Lynn responded to you, did he not?" Bergstrom asked the man.

"Yes," he replied.

After Avery completed his hospital treatment, Lynn recommended he serve as chaplain at Nazareth Hospital in Northeast Philadelphia. But Avery was allowed to live at the rectory at St. Jerome's, a sprawling parish with a school about five blocks from the hospital.

In 1999, the altar boys there included the 10-year-old son of a Philadelphia police officer. In a photo shown to jurors, the boy wore a blue sweater vest, a light-colored crew-cut, and a smile. "Mom always said I was a cute kid," he testified.

Earlier that school year, the man said, he had been sexually abused by another priest at the parish. (That priest, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, faces a separate trial because he belongs to an independent religious order. So, too, does a former schoolteacher at St. Jerome's who is also accused of raping the boy.)

Avery, he said, told the altar boy he had heard about his "sessions" with Engelhardt and proposed his own. "I tried to act like I didn't know what he was talking about, but when he mentioned that, my stomach turned," he testified.

Twice in the ensuing weeks, Avery forced him to strip and engage in oral sex in a room near the church sacristy after he served a Mass with the priest, according to his testimony. He told no one about the abuse.

"I was scared," he said. "I thought I did something wrong. And it was a priest."

Within a year, he said, he began drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana. By high school, he said, he had graduated to prescription medication and eventually heroin. He has since spent time in nearly two dozen drug treatment programs, he said.

He did not report the abuse to the archdiocese until 2009. Church officials in turn reported it to prosecutors. Because it fell within a newly amended statute of limitations, the man's claim became a focus of the 2011 grand jury report that faulted Lynn and the archdiocese for its response to abuse victims. The accuser has also filed a lawsuit seeking damages against Lynn, Avery, and the church.

Judge M. Teresa Sarmina had warned defense lawyers that their cross-examination could have opened the door for prosecutors to tell jurors Avery admitted the assault. He is now serving 21/2 to five years in prison.

So Lynn's lawyers, Bergstrom and Jeffrey Lindy, chose not to question the St. Jerome's altar boy. Instead, they asked that jurors be read a statement noting that he came forward in 2009, five years after Lynn had left his post in the archdiocese administration.

Avery was removed from ministry in 2003 and defrocked three years later. At least five other men have since come forward with accusations against him, prosecutors say.

The first accuser told jurors that he pressed Lynn as late as 2002 to assure him that Avery had been removed from any post that gave him access to children, but "I didn't get feedback from him that I really had been taken seriously."

The judge asked if the abuse had a lasting impact.

"It caused a great deal of doubt for me," he replied. "I'm still a practicing Catholic, my wife much more so than I. I have had a difficult time."

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