Psalms and Prayers in Prison
By Ralph Cipriano
September 11, 2014
Father Charles Engelhardt spends his days in prison reciting prayers, psalms and hymns from the Liturgy of the Hours.
"That's his anchor," Father Jerry Dunne says about Engelhardt's daily devotion to the official prayer book for the Catholic clergy.
Dunne visits Engelhardt every month at the State Correctional Institution in Coal Township, Northumberland County, some 2 1/2 hours northwest of Philadelphia. That's where Engelhardt, 67, is serving a six to 12 year sentence after he was convicted on Jan. 30, 2013 of endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of a minor and indecent assault. The "victim" in the case is the credibility-challenged former altar boy known as "Billy Doe."
Dunne has known "Charlie" Engelhardt for more than 40 years. The two priests are fellow oblates of St. Francis DeSales. They went to the seminary and college together, and worked along side each other at a couple of archdiocesan high schools, as well as in the same parish.
Engelhardt has lost "a lot of weight" but his "spirits are unusually positive," Dunne says. "That fascinates me."
"He's a person of very strong faith," Dunne says of Engelhardt. "He believes there's a purpose for all this. He believes that ultimately justice will prevail."
Dunne, however, isn't so sure.
"It just seems to me that it just gets darker and darker," Dunne says about the plight of a man he believes was falsely accused and convicted. "If it were me," Dunne says, "I would be crying every night."
But Charlie "never says anything negative or critical of anyone," Dunne marvels. "He's never lamented his circumstances. He never judges anyone."
Instead, he keeps his nose buried in the Liturgy of the Hours.
"God, come to my assistance," is the prayer in the book for Sept. 10th. "Lord, make haste to help me."
The hymn is "Morning has broken" popularized by Cat Stevens:
Morning has broken, like the first morning
Blackbird has spoken, like the first bird
Praise for the singing, praise for the morning
Praise for them springing fresh from the word
As his niece, Tracey Boyle, says, "You can take away his freedom, take away his family, but you can't take away his God!"
Engelhardt has told his lawyer, Michael J. McGovern, that the priest's job in jail is to come to terms with his present circumstances and figure out how they fit in with God's plan for his life. And McGovern's job, Engelhardt tells the lawyer, is to "get me the hell out of here."
Engelhardt's co-defendant was Bernard Shero, 51, a former Catholic school teacher now serving an 8 to 16-year sentence after being convicted of the rape of a child, attempted rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child, endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of a minor, and indecent assault. Shero resides at SCI Houtzdale, Clearfield County, a prison located nearly four hours northwest of Philadelphia.
His mother, Bonnie, who visits him every month, says her son has kept busy by signing up for law classes offered at the prison, as well as a drafting class. "He goes to the law library as much as he can," his mother says. Like Engelhardt, Shero remains convinced that ultimately he will be vindicated.
"It was heartbreaking in the beginning but he is just doing so much better than I thought he would," she says. "He has a positive outlook about everything. He's sure his appeal is going to be heard. He's sure it's going to turn around and that the truth will come out."
"He's not blaming anybody except for Billy," his mother said.
Bonnie Shero wonders how her son was able to cope with going to jail for something he didn't do. But she says her son, who is legally blind in one eye, learned how to cope with adversity after enduring 23 eye surgeries as a child.
"This trial was on his mind for a long time and he just prepared himself for the worst," his mother says. "And when it happened he handled it better than most people would have."
Shero has a radio in prison but the reception is terrible. His roommate has a TV but Shero doesn't have much say in what shows they watch.
He spends his time reading Scientific American and Popular Science. People also send him books.
"He has plenty of reading material," his mother says.
While the prisoners do their time, the appeals in the criminal case progress plod through state Superior Court. Lawyers in the case aren't saying much. And there isn't much reading material available down at the courthouse.
On July 29th, the Superior Court sealed the records in the appeals of both Engelhardt and Shero, at the request of Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams.
Williams filed to seal the records the day after Shero's lawyer, Burton A. Rose, filed an application seeking a new trial based on alleged prosecutorial misconduct. Rose has charged that prosecutors did not tell defense lawyers about an interview they conducted before the criminal trial with Judy Cruz-Ransom, a social worker for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who would have further undermined Billy Doe's credibility.
Cruz-Ransom was driving a car on Jan. 30, 2009, the day Billy Doe got in and gave an interview to Louise Hagner, another archdiocese social worker. During the interview, Cruz-Ransom testified at a civil deposition, Doe appeared to be sober, told tall tales and attempted to pull off some fake crying.
Doe has maintained he was high on heroin the day he got into Cruz-Ransom's car and gave the interview to Hagner. In his application, Rose maintained that at the criminal trial of Engelhardt and Shero, the testimony of Cruz-Ransom would have buttressed Hagner's testimony and undercut Billy Doe's. But prosecutors in the case never divulged to defense lawyers that they had interviewed Cruz-Ransom, according to Rose's application.
Robert E. Welsh Jr., the lawyer who accompanied Cruz-Ransom to her interview with prosecutors Mark Cipolletti and Evangelia Manos has been ducking Big Trial's questions for a week now. The district attorney's office also is stonewalling on why it sought to have the appeal records and the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct sealed in Superior Court.
While the National Catholic Reporter wrote about the allegations of prosecutorial misconduct, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and other local media continue to ignore the story, as well as the many questions lingering from the local D.A's self-described "historic" prosecution of the Catholic church.
But one filmmaker from Providence, Rhode Island, had found the Philly archdiocese trials to be fascinating. Ken Gumbert, a Catholic priest who teaches film studies at Providence College, is putting the finishing touches on a 53-minute documentary, Abuse in Philly; The Clergy Sex Abuse Trials.
Gumbert hopes to release his documentary by Jan. 1. He plans on pitching it to the networks and cable TV because he believes there is "great public interest in this type of story."
The documentary is based on Big Trial's reporting on the prosecution of the archdiocese.
"It's a tragic story of politics and passions getting in the way of the civil rights of individual Americans," Gumbert said. "It's a story that should be of interest to anyone concerned with civil rights and justice for all American citizens."