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Social Worker Testifies About Accuser In Sex Abuse Case Against Philadelphia Priest, Teacher

(Phila. PD photos)

(Phila. PD photos)

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A church social worker believed a longtime heroin addict was sober when he first accused two priests and a teacher of raping him, although the accuser attributes changes to his story to the fact he was high — and nearly “comatose” — that day.

Louise Hagner, a victim assistance coordinator for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia, testified Wednesday at the trial of two of the three men accused. The defense called her to try to discredit the accuser.

According to Hagner’s notes, the man said he was abused by sixth-grade teacher Bernard Shero at school in 2000 and raped by the Rev. Charles Engelhardt for five hours at church. The 24-year-old accuser now says Shero abused him in a parked car and Engelhardt in between masses in the church sacristy.

Shero, 49, and Engelhardt, 66, are on trial fighting the charges. The other accused priest, Edward Avery, is in prison after taking a plea deal, but still denies abusing the boy.

The young man’s credibility is the crux of the two-week case, which could reach the jury by Friday.

Hagner endured several hours of heated questioning, given her unusual role as a church-paid point person for victims of child sexual abuse by priests. Philadelphia prosecutors, in two damning grand jury reports since 2005, accused the archdiocese of looking out for church interests, not the victims.

On cross-examination, Hagner was grilled about why she had noted that the accuser, a policeman’s son, planned to sue the church. And she was asked why she went to his house the very day he said he wasn’t ready to meet with her. Hagner and a colleague knocked on the door and called the young man’s cellphone until — against his father’s wishes — he went out to their car and talked.

The accuser had disclosed the alleged abuse at a drug treatment program in January 2009, prompting a counselor to help him call a church hotline. His irate father, after learning of the disclosure, wanted him to instead talk to police.

“I’m proud of all the work I did with my victims. I cared about them, and I did my best,” an emotional Hagner testified. She has worked for the archdiocese since 1974.

The Rev. William Lynn, secretary for clergy from 1992 to 2004, was convicted of felony child endangerment last year for his handling of priest assignments amid hundreds of child sexual-abuse complaints lodged in secret church archives. Prosecutors at his landmark trial alleged that the church hid or dismissed abuse complaints in order to save the church from scandal — and costly lawsuits.

Hagner insisted that she only wanted to promote healing, whether they planned to sue or not.

“(That) doesn’t matter to me,” she testified.

Hagner acknowledged that she once spoke by phone to an accuser who was in a psychiatric hospital after a suicide attempt, but said she had not initiated the call.

Shero and Engelhardt were charged along with Lynn and two others, but were granted separate trials because neither reported to Lynn. Engelhardt belongs to the Wilmington, Del.-based Oblates of the Order of St. Francis. Shero is a lay person, but taught at several archdiocesan schools, including St. Jerome’s in northeast Philadelphia, where the accuser was a student and altar boy.

Lynn is serving three to six years in prison for transferring Avery to the parish despite an earlier abuse complaint and admission. Avery is serving 2 1/2 to five years, but he testified last week that he took the deal only to avoid the risk of a longer sentence at trial.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)