Philadelphia priest convicted of sex abuse proclaimed innocence until his death

A Philadelphia priest convicted of child sexual abuse claimed his innocence up to his death, according to reports from his prison cellmate.

Fr. Charles Engelhardt, 67, died Nov. 15 at Coal Township Prison in central Pennsylvania two years into a six-to-12-year sentence. In January 2013, a jury convicted the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales priest of corruption of minors, indecent assault of a person under age 13, and endangering the welfare of children.

The charges related to the case of former altar boy "Billy Doe" that over the course of two trials in two years imprisoned Engelhardt, a former priest and a schoolteacher, for abusing the former altar boy in the late 1990s. In addition, Msgr. William Lynn, secretary of clergy for the Philadelphia archdiocese from 1992 to 2004, was found guilty of child endangerment for his handling of the related abuse claims. He was the first U.S. church official convicted on such grounds.

In a February 2011 grand jury report, which brought charges against Lynn, Engelhardt and three others, Engelhardt was accused of showing Doe pornographic magazines and engaging in mutual masturbation and oral sex; at trial, Doe reiterated those allegations.

Questions, however, would arise about Doe's credibility and the Philadelphia district attorney's handling of the case as defense lawyers sought to overturn the convictions. A day after Christmas 2013, Lynn, after serving 18 months, won his appeal in the state Superior Court; he remains under house arrest while the state Supreme Court reviews his case. A fourth defendant in the Doe trials, defrocked priest Edward Avery, testified during the Engelhardt trial that he pleaded guilty to Doe's charges to get a lesser sentence. He remains in jail.

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Both Engelhardt and teacher Bernard Shero filed appeals to the Superior Court, as well. At the time of his sentencing, Engelhardt said he had "no interaction [with the accuser] in any way" and expressed his belief that "this injustice" would ultimately be righted.

According to his cellmate, the priest maintained that position in his last days.

In late December, journalist and NCR contributor Ralph Cipriano reported for the Philadelphia crime blog Bigtrial.net that Paul H. Eline, the priest's fellow inmate, filed as an intervenor in Engelhardt's appeal case, detailing his final moments with his cellmate, including the priest's dying declaration.

"Paul, I do not feel well. Please understand that I am an innocent man, who was wrongly convicted," Engelhardt said the night before his death, according to Eline's court filing.

In legal parlance, a dying declaration is a type of evidence admissible as an exception to the hearsay rule in a criminal homicide or civil case. It is commonly viewed as having a high degree of trustworthiness since the recognition of impending death offers little incentive for the declarant to lie.

"There is no other reason for Charles F. Engelhardt to state anything but the truth, knowing that his life will be lost to improper medical procedures," Eline stated in his filing.

Eline, in prison on deceptive business practices charges, had written letters to Engelhardt's family, challenging the medical care the priest received in the months before his death. While Eline held that a denied bypass surgery cost Engelhardt his life, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Corrections said he died of natural causes, Cipriano reported.

On a memorial webpage, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales stated Engelhardt died from multiple organ failures and cardiac-related illnesses. Provincial Fr. James J. Greenfield stated the trials Engelhardt endured during the last five years "were a complete injustice, yet Fr. Engelhardt remained a strong example of suffering as he awaited his vindication in the upcoming appeals process."

"With his family, we Oblates believe deeply that Fr. Engelhardt is innocent, and we are confident that the truth will soon be brought to light. We will continue to work to clear his name," Greenfield said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is broewe@ncronline.org.]

A version of this story appeared in the Jan 16-29, 2015 print issue under the headline: Priest claimed innocence up to his death .

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