Priest to Get Day in Court First

By Philip Elliott and Bryan Corbin
Courier & Press
August 13, 2005

The Diocese of Evansville will wait until accusations against a suspended priest are resolved in criminal court before taking any further action.

The Rev. Wilfred "Fred" Englert, 52, of Jasper, Ind., is accused of sexually molesting a 19-year-old mentally disabled man. Englert, the priest at Jasper's St. Joseph Catholic Church, has been suspended with pay by the Diocese of Evansville. It remains unclear what the diocese's next step will be, given new church rules on abuse and the criminal case unfolding in court documents. In the criminal case, Englert faces charges of engaging in sex acts with the mentally-disabled man between April and July. Court documents cite a mental-health expert who evaluated the young man and concluded that because of retardation, the 19-year-old has the academic functioning of a 9-year-old. Prosecutors thus contend the young man could not legally give consent to sex, despite his age.

When questioned by an Indiana State Police investigator, Englert reportedly admitted some of the man's allegations of sexual contact.

Prosecutors in Dubois and Orange counties filed formal charges against Englert on Tuesday. Englert turned himself in Thursday, posted bond and was released.

State Police detective Sgt. Steve Chambers investigated the complaint. "The statute says the person is so mentally deficient he cannot knowingly give consent," Chambers said of the charges filed. "Basically, we determined the young man operated on the academic level of nine years of age."

The probable-cause affidavit noted that because of his mental disability, the young man could not care for himself; and his parents were appointed as his legal guardians when he was 18. Questioned by the detective, Englert reportedly admitted that the parents showed him their son's guardianship papers about a year before the abuse allegedly began. Jasper attorney Steve Ripstra is representing Englert. One issue Ripstra intends to investigate is the 19-year-old's mental competency and whether the young man could legally consent to sex. "There may be a question of whether academic age has a lot to do with chronological age, as far as being able to understand and do things," Ripstra said. He recalled other clients he defended who were behind academically, yet were prosecuted for adult sex crimes. Now he wonders if the young man could be held to that same adult standard. "If you can be academically challenged and be prosecuted, it will be an interesting question as to the reverse of that," Ripstra said. He added the defense might seek a psychological evaluation of the young man.

Englert is not accused of rape or using force, so if the young man were shown to be legally capable of consenting to sex, then Ripstra contends it's not a crime. "I wouldn't think it would be," he said.

Orange County Prosecutor Kelly Minton filed three charges against Englert: one count of Class B felony criminal deviate conduct and two counts of Class D felony sexual battery. Minton declined to discuss the case at length.

Dubois County Prosecutor Mike Fritch filed against the priest two separate counts of sexual battery. Fritch was out of the office Friday and unavailable for comment.

According to Chambers' affidavit, the young man had told a friend about the sexual abuse. The 19-year-old then told the detective that Englert had apologized for the abuse and promised him a gift. With the parents' permission, the detective had the young man telephone Englert from the State Police post in Jasper on July 20. Englert then reportedly met the young man at a Jasper business, purchased a cell phone for him with his credit card and placed the phone in the young man's name.

In light of publicity about the clergy-abuse scandal in other jurisdictions, in which Roman Catholic dioceses have agreed to pay out large settlements, Ripstra wonders if his client can receive a fair trial locally.

"That's what we're going to look at," the defense attorney said. "He's going to have to be tried somewhere. It's before the public so much that it (opinions about other accused clergy) is going to be a problem."

Ripstra said that he might seek a change of venue.

A conviction on the Class B felony charge Englert faces would carry a six- to 20-year sentence. Each of the four Class D felony sexual battery charges is potentially punishable by six months to three years in prison.

Chambers said the accuser's parents were not interested in filing a complaint with the diocese, and instead worked directly with state police. "They weren't interested in talking with (the diocese)," Chambers said. "They do want to be left alone, basically."

But separate from the criminal case, Englert also faces scrutiny under U.S. Catholic church policy. In June, bishops revised their standards for dealing with accusations of priest abuse. Those new rules define abuse in the context of adultery, which could be defined as any sexual activity outside marriage. Officials who helped draft it said the new policy would not limit bishops' power, but merely recast the discussion as rooted in the Sixth Commandment, which forbids adultery.

"Nothing in the revision of the Charter has taken away any categories of abuse," said William Ryan, deputy director of communications with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Asked if the allegations against Englert would fall under the category of abuse, he replied, "I would certainly think so."

Diocesan Chancellor Judy Neff said diocese officials would wait until criminal proceedings were finished before they move forward. As of Friday, the diocese had not launched an investigation.

Neff, whose role as chancellor gives her authority over the diocesan archives and administrative paperwork, said state police have not requested any files on Englert.

State police confirmed they had not requested any files from the diocese or interviewed any officials there. "We haven't deemed it necessary," Chambers said.

Neff declined to say if Englert ever had been accused before.

"While he's under investigation, it would be inappropriate," said Neff, who also oversees the diocese's Safe Environment Program.


July 18 - A 19-year-old mentally disabled man goes to Indiana State Police and alleges that The Rev. Wilfred L. Englert, 52, had been molesting him since April.

July 20 - With his parents' permission, the accuser reportedly telephones Englert from the Indiana State Police Post in Jasper. The two meet in Jasper, and Englert reportedly purchases a calling card and cell phone in the young man's name.

July 21 - State Police Detective Sgt. Stephen Chambers alerts the Diocese of Evansville that he would be contacting Englert. Chambers interviews Englert, who allegedly admits he had been sexually active with the 19-year-old. Englert also tells Chambers that he had seen the accuser's guardianship papers. The diocese suspends Englert from duty.

July 22 - Englert moves out of the rectory.

Aug. 9 - Dubois County Prosecutor Mike Fritch files formal charges against Englert of two counts of sexual battery. Meanwhile, Orange County Prosecutor Kelly Minton files another two sexual-battery counts against Englert, and also files a charge of criminal deviate conduct.

Aug. 11 - Englert turns himself in and is arraigned, both at Dubois Circuit Court in Jasper, Ind., and at Orange Circuit Court in Paoli, Ind. Englert bails out after posting $1,000 bond on the Orange County charges and $400 on the Dubois County charges.

Sept. 23 - Englert is scheduled to return to Dubois Circuit Court.

Sept. 26 - Englert is scheduled to appear in Orange Circuit Court.


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