A Priest's Ordeal Weighs Heavily on His Family

By Ralph Cipriano
Big Trial
June 5, 2013

The accuser

In the last four years, Father Charles Engelhardt has lost 50 pounds.

But as his boss, Father James J. Greenfield, will tell you, "This is a weight loss program I wouldn't wish on anyone."

  It began in 2009, when a man subsequently identified in a grand jury report as "Billy Doe" accused Father Engelhardt of raping him back when the alleged victim was a 10-year old altar boy.

Four years ago, the 5-foot-11 priest weighed 220 pounds. He had a double chin and a pot belly. But last week, according to his family, when they visited him in jail, Father Engelhardt looked frail and barely weighed 170. His arms, sticking out of a bright-yellow jumpsuit, were skinnier than his baby sister's.

The priest wore a bandage from a recent blood test, his family said. A prison doctor told the family he ordered an EKG. The 66-year-old priest suffers from hypertension and acid reflex. When his family visits him in jail, he is often moved to tears.

It's stress, his family said, the cumulative toll of being unjustly accused of rape by somebody the priest can't even remember.

  Father Engelhardt is an Oblate of St. Francis DeSales. As a member of that religious order, he's taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to Father Greenfield, the provincial who leads the Wilmington-Philadelphia province of the Oblates.

  On Jan. 30, a jury convicted Father Engelhardt on four counts of sexual abuse of a child. On June 12th, the priest will be sentenced by Judge Ellen Ceisler. He faces a maximum jail term of 37 years.

Father Engelhardt's family is braced for the worst. And yet from his cell at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Northeast Philadelphia, the priest remains hopeful.

"His faith is so strong that he truly believes that the truth will win out," says Elaine, his older sister.

His family, however, has doubts.

"I think God's taken a vacation on this one," Elaine said.

Jennifer, who married one of Father Engelhardt's nephews, tried to explain "Uncle Charlie's" role in his large extended Irish-Catholic family in Northeast Philadelphia.

"Picture in your mind the most respected person in your family, the one who's the hero in your life, the one that you would look up to for support and advice," she said. Now imagine that hero's been locked up in jail for a terrible crime he didn't commit.

That's what Father Engelhardt's family is going through. They describe the priest as the spiritual leader of the family.

Uncle Charlie baptized almost all of his three nieces and four nephews, as well as a dozen great-nieces and nephews. He presided over every family communion, confirmation and graduation; he presided over the weddings of three nieces and three nephews.

"He was central to our family," Tracey said. "Every one of us went to college and graduated because that's what he did."

A dozen members of the Engelhardt clan gathered Monday night in a Northeast Philadelphia rowhome to talk about Uncle Charlie, or as they pronounce it, Uncle Chollie. The family has one request; please don't print their last names because they are worried about protecting a dozen grand-nieces and nephews from "the crazies out there who believe he actually did this,"as his sister Elaine put it.

To somebody who's been calling the victim in this case Billy Doe for two years, it seems like a reasonable request.

When they stripped Father Engelhardt of the right to say Mass publicly, the priest said Mass at 10:30 a.m. every Sunday at his mother's house for four years. Family members also attended.

Father Engelhardt's 88-year-old mother, Elaine, who has Parkinson's disease, isn't doing well lately. She used to visit her son in jail every Tuesday.

"We would sit with Uncle Charlie as long as they would let us," his niece Tracey said. Then on April 16th, the priest's mother fell as she was leaving the prison. She suffered only bruises. A week later, however, she fell again at home and this time she broke her hip. She had a partial hip replacement, and is now bed-ridden. She hasn't seen her son since April 16th.

The priest calls his mother every day. but she doesn't always recognize the number in time to answer. The family believes the stress of Father Engelhardt's situation has caused the onset of dementia in his mother. Tracey, a nurse, talked about the "sadness in her grandmother's eyes" for the past four years.

"We think the only thing that keeps her living is she's holding out for the day he's found innocent," Elaine said.

Father Engelhardt's family wants the world to know who the real Charles Engelhardt is.

In the past four years, his family has never heard him utter the words, "Why me?"

They have never heard him say a single negative thing about his accuser.

They have never heard him raise his voice, or curse.

"We get frustrated with the fact that he never gets angry like us," said his nephew Kevin.

"I would love to hear him curse once about it," his sister Elaine said.

"He feels this is what God's will is for him," Tracey said, of her uncle's life in prison. "That's how he gets through the day."

When the family goes to see him in jail, Father Engelhardt wants to talk about what's going on in their lives. He wants to know what the twins are up to, and how's Gram doing. Then he'll answer questions about himself and his situation.

"He's always tries to protect us and he's the one who's suffering," said Kathleen, his younger sister. "He's putting up a front for us. He's a broken man."

Father Engelhardt's ordeal began on Jan. 30, 2009, when Billy Doe told an archdiocese social worker that the priest had raped him in the sacristy at St. Jerome's Church in Northeast Philadelphia.

On December 3, 2010, Father Engelhardt testified before a grand jury, voluntarily waiving his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination. The priest thought the grand jury proceedings would be a solemn occasion. 

  Instead, he told his family, he noticed several jurors eating hoagies. Another juror was reading the Philadelphia Daily News. The priest wondered if the jurors could hear when he spoke in his usual quiet voice.

Assistant District Attorney Mariana Sorensen asked Father Engelhardt about the day he was removed from active ministry, hours after Billy Doe made his complaint: Q. When did you first learn of that accusation?

A. Around 4:30 in the afternoon, I received a call from Father [James] Greenfield saying that the diocese had received a complaint and where I, at that point firmly denied [it] saying that there was no credibility to that accusation. It's nothing but a lie or a falsehood ... 

  The provincial agreed that they didn't see anything credible in that accusation from my record and from what they knew and could see in the accusation. And they asked me to leave Resurrection Parish and move to where I'm presently residing up in Wynnewood ... 

  That is the procedure which is followed especially by the oblates. Any kind of accusation, credible or non-credible, they ask you to leave until things can be thoroughly checked out ...

  Q. Tell us what was your understanding of who the person was that was making the accusation against you? Did you know the name of the person?

A. The name, but I have no knowledge of who the person is. If he's sitting in this room today, I can't pick him out.

Q. Ok.

A. I could never pick him out. So I have no idea exactly who he is ...

Q. [By Assistant District Attorney Evangelia Manos] Is there anything you want to add, Father?

A. Well, of course, you know, the accusation doesn't -- wasn't expected, you know, heart wrenching, you know and I found it to be a very humbling thing to be called on the phone by your provincial and say somebody's made an accusation against you, when you know, there was no truth or that was something unrealistic that was happening to you. So you try and figure out, you know, what could have brought it on ...

He still hasn't figured it out; neither has his family.

Father Engelhardt's pre-trial advice to his lawyer, Michael J. McGovern, was, "Mike, you do the best you can do and God will take care of the rest."

However, the trial, which began on Jan. 14, took a wrong turn right at the beginning. The court crier asked Father Engelhardt to stand so the jury could hear how he would plead to the charges against him. To the shock of the priest's family, and his lawyers, the first charge that the court crier read against Father Engelhardt, rape of a child, was an offense that the priest had not been charged with.

The court crier made a similar mistake with Bernard Shero, Engelhardt's co-defendant. When Shero stood to plead not guilty, the court crier read an extra count, conspiracy, that Shero hadn't been charged with.

The family felt the judge should have declared a mistrial right then and there. But Judge Ceisler  did not appear concerned.

"It was an error," the judge told the lawyers in the case. "He should not have been arraigned on that. It was never listed as a charge against Father Engelhardt."

McGovern, Engelhardt's lawyer, asked the judge to instruct the jury that the rape charge was never filed against his client.

"It was an error," the judge repeated. "What will happen, we will get through the trial and then as we go through the trial, and in the end when we discuss what the charges are and the elements, [and] you will have a greater understanding. For now, we will keep moving forward."

But at the end of the trial, when the judge instructed the jury, once again she read an extra count against Shero, aggravated indecent assault, that the defendant was not charged with. Again, the judge apologized, saying, "Sorry about that."

When Billy Doe testified on Jan. 15th, he was asked by the prosecutor about Father Engelhardt's demeanor.

"When I would see him, he was pretty nice," Doe told the jury. "He would come talk to us, ask us how our day was going, tell us a couple jokes; a pretty easy-going guy."

Right away, the Engelhardt family knew that Billy Doe didn't really know their uncle.

  "I've never heard my uncle crack a joke in the 38 years I've been alive," Tracey said.

  "He's a man of few words," Father Greenfield agreed. "Not a jokester at all."

  On the witness stand moments later, Billy Doe described a black bag that Father Engelhardt was carrying that Doe claimed was stuffed with pornographic magazines:

Q. You mention his bag. What did his bag look like?

  A. It was like a little black briefcase almost. It was like a black briefcase, not a hard one, a bag though.

  When Billy Doe tells a story, it's usually the details that give him away.

Remember when he claimed to a member of the bell choir maintenance crew back in fifth grade?

  Father Engelhardt, who has taken a vow of poverty, has carried the same briefcase since the 1970s. It's a gift from his parents, a large, gray heavy, hardback American Tourister briefcase.

It was the kind of detail that would elude lawyers and jurors. But to the Engelhardt family it was more proof that Billy Doe was making it up as he went along.

  The jury, however, didn't see it that way.

On Jan. 30, the jury reached no verdict on a count against Father Engelhardt of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child. But the jury convicted Engelhardt on four remaining counts -- endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of a minor, indecent assault on a person less than 13 years old, and conspiring with another priest, Father Edward V. Avery, to commit sexual assault on Billy Doe.

The family was stunned; no one could speak. Several women broke down in tears. One of Uncle Charlie's nephews ran down the hall vomiting.

The count alleging a conspiracy between Engelhardt and Avery was really ludicrous, family members said. The prosecution had alleged that after Father Engelhardt raped Billy Doe, he told Avery about it, and Avery went out and also raped the boy.

It's an incredible allegation on several levels.

Avery was merely an "acquaintance," Engelhardt told the grand jury. In their entire lives, Father Greenfield estimated, Fathers Avery and Engelhardt spent maybe a grand total of five minutes talking to each other. "They were two ships passing in the night," Father Greenfield said.

The prosecution claimed that Doe was the victim of a conspiracy as he was passed from one abuser priest to another. It's an unprecedented claim in the archdiocese.

During the trial of Msgr. William J. Lynn last year, the prosecution entered as evidence some 250 files from past archdiocese cases of sex abuse, dating back to 1948. Not once during the 13-week trial was there a mention in all  those files of a single incident where a priest passed a victim of sex abuse on to another priest.

The family believes the entire prosecution case defies common sense. Take the notion of a priest closing four doors to the sacristy after the 6:30 a.m. Sunday Mass so he can take off his clothes and rape a 10-year-old altar boy.

The doors lead to the only bathroom in the church, as well as the sanctuary. According to Billy Doe's initial accusations, the priest kept those doors locked for five hours while he pounded away at the victim, from 7 a.m. to noon.

Father Engelhardt's niece asks a logical question.

"What happened to the 8 o'clock Mass?" she said. "Did they cancel it?"

How about the 9:30 Mass, and the 11 a.m. Mass as well?

"There was so much reasonable doubt,"Tracey said. The jury verdict sent the family into a tailspin. "For a whole month, nobody could even speak without crying," Tracey said.

"I did nothing but sob and cry," his sister Elaine said.

She thought the verdict was against the Catholic Church. "God himself could have been on that stand and he would have been guilty," said Michael, Elaine's husband, and brother-in-law to Father Engelhardt.

Before the deputies led him away to prison, Father Engelhardt's last words to his sister Kathleen was, "I'm innocent," and, "Take care of Mom."

When Father Engelhardt's niece, Lauren, got married in April, two Oblates had to pinch-hit for Father Engelhardt.

"It was so sad that we had to fill in for their uncle," Father Greenfield said. "There is no reason in the world why he [Engelhardt] shouldn't have been the one doing it. He's a priest sitting in prison and he's not guilty of a crime. That's how I see it."

As far as Father Greenfield is concerned, Engelhardt and Shero got caught up in "the war on the Roman Catholic priesthood" waged by an "overzealous" prosecution. The two defendants wound up as "collateral damage."

"In my opinion, there is something not right inside the D.A's office," Father Greenfield said.  "I do not believe my man is guilty of anything."

As far as Engelhardt is concerned, "I think he's a deeply-centered human being," Greenfield said.

"He believes that he is innocent and trusts that he will be vindicated. That speaks to his religious spiritual core. He really believes that when you have the truth on your side, the truth will win out. That has been his greatest witness. This is the moment, ironically, where he is shining."

 Kathleen, Father Engelhardt's younger sister, sees her brother as a martyr.

  "He's a martyr for the Catholic Church," Kathleen says. "He's not even an archdiocese priest and he's taking the blame for what the archdiocese [of Philadelphia] has done."

  Father Greenfield agrees, to a point.

  "I think Charlie is suffering for the sins of others," he said. "But it goes beyond the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. We're all flawed. I don't want to just blame the archdiocese. They have their problems but we all do. Everyone in the church, all religious orders."

  But that doesn't mean that the Oblates plan to passively accept Engelhardt's conviction and imprisonment.

  "We cannot just roll over in the face of being falsely accused," Father Greenfield said. "That is wrong. We need to stand up for what's right."

  Members of the Engelhardt family are writing letters to the judge, asking for mercy.

  "I was drafted into the Army in 196t9, served as a combat sergeant in Vietnam," wrote Michael, Father Engelhardt's brother-in-law. "After the Army, I worked 30 years, traveling the world, with a secret clearance for the Department of Defense. I would say I thought I have seen it all, but I have never witnessed a man have his SOUL ripped out of him, which is what happened to Charlie ... I can't imagine if I were in his shoes, being falsely accused by someone you don't even know and then somehow being convicted."

  The Engelhardt family is angry. They're angry that a false accusation made its way to court. They're angry that the district attorney called a press conference on Feb. 11, 2011, and declared that Father Engelhardt and the rest of the Catholic defendants facing upcoming trials were "bad men doing bad things." The Engelhardt family is angry at the media. They're angry that Billy Doe is a free man and that Father Engelhardt is sitting in  jail.

  After Father Engelhardt was indicted, he couldn't drive over the Ben Franklin Bridge to attend his great nephew's baptism. Then, after the trial was over, Father Engelhardt went off to jail. And on Facebook, Billy Doe posted pictures of himself surfing in Florida and vacationing in Puerto Rico.

But the family still has hope. In a written statement, the Engelhardt clan elaborates by saying they "hope that someone who knows the truth [relatives and friends of Billy Doe who know this is based on a lie] will come forward and tell the truth. Hope that they can no longer live with their guilt and will want to make things right."

  While Father Engelhardt never says a bad word about his accuser, his family members have plenty to say.

  "Here's this lowlife liar, dope-addict drug-dealer who can just accuse someone who has done nothing but good in his life and has done nothing but dedicate himself to God and his family," his sister Elaine said.

She has a point. How could twelve jurors believe this guy?


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