Friday, November 21, 2014

"I Accept This Injustice"

By Ralph Cipriano

An oblate of St. Francis de Sales takes priestly vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. He prays to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ.

Few who pray that prayer could have ever imagined the fate that befell Father Charles Engelhardt.

That was the message of the homily delivered today by Father Michael Connolly at the funeral of Father Engelhardt, his friend and fellow oblate of nearly 50 years.

An oblate wears a silver cross around his neck, Father Connolly said. He fished his own cross out of his priestly garments to show the crowd. It's a cross an oblate receives on the occasion of his first presentation of faith, the priest said. It's not a crucifix; there's no body on it.

"Charlie was the body on that cross in his life," Father Connolly said. Like Jesus, Father Engelhardt was falsely accused, tried, and convicted, Father Connolly said. Like Jesus, "Charlie endured his suffering" with patience and humility, Father Connolly said. Like Jesus, Father Engelhardt was repeatedly humiliated before he died as a prisoner.

What was Charlie Engehlardt's response to his fate?

"I accept this injustice believing God will make it right in the end." That's what Father Engelhardt repeatedly told his lawyers and fellow oblates, Father Connolly said. It would be Father Engelhardt's parting message on the day that his family and fellow oblates gathered to bury him.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Moses, Solomon And The Monsignor

By Ralph Cipriano

Under a stained glass dome and bronze statues of Moses and Solomon, the state's highest court this morning debated the fate of Msgr. William J. Lynn.

"God save the Commonwealth and this honorable court," the court crier shouted in the packed, ornate chambers of the state Supreme Court on the fourth floor of the state Capitol in Harrisburg.

Up at the raised mahogany bench, Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille got things rolling by announcing, "The issue here was this application of the [child] endangerment statute."

That really is the issue in the Lynn case. The other justices, however, did not seem to want to stick to that script as they fired one extraneous shot after another at Thomas A. Bergstrom, the monsignor's defense lawyer.

After it was over, Bergstrom had the dazed look of a hockey goalie. His adversary from the D.A.'s office seemed to get off much easier, but he did have to concede a few key points that could be fatal.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Handcuffs And A Hospital Bed

By Ralph Cipriano

For Father Charles Engelhardt, the ordeal is finally over.

The 67-year-old priest died at 8:30 p.m. Saturday night at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa., according to Father James J. Greenfield, provincial of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, Father Engelhardt's religious order.

"A beautiful and holy man" was how his lawyer, Michael J. McGovern, described him. He was "a true martyr," McGovern said.

At the time of his death, Father Engelhardt was an inmate at the State Correctional Institution in Coal Township, Northumberland County, where he had served nearly two years of a 6-to-12 year-sentence. The priest was convicted on Jan. 30, 2013 of endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of a minor and indecent assault. His accuser, however, was "Billy Doe," the former altar boy turned heroin addict who had all kinds of credibility issues.

To Father Engelhardt's family and lawyer, the priest was an innocent man falsely accused and wrongly convicted in a case overflowing with reasonable doubt. When the priest died at the hospital, no family member was present.

Father Greenfield saw Father Engelhardt the day before he died. Despite being handcuffed to a hospital bed and under guard by two armed correctional officers, "Charlie" appeared to be in good spirits, Father Greenfield said.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Priest Stricken In Prison

By Ralph Cipriano

Father Charles Engelhardt was transported by ambulance from prison to a hospital last week after he experienced dizziness.

The 67-year-old priest is an inmate at the State Correctional Institution in Coal Township, Northumberland County, where he's serving a six to 12 year-sentence. In a case overflowing with reasonable doubt, a jury on Jan. 30, 2013 inexplicably convicted Engelhardt  of endangering the welfare of a child, corruption of a minor and indecent assault. Even though the alleged "victim" in the case was Billy Doe, a former altar boy turned heroin addict whose crazy stories of abuse defied logic and common sense, as well as all known evidence gathered by the district attorney's own detectives.

Just a week before he was stricken, Father Engelhardt's lawyer, Michael J. McGovern, was in state Superior Court, arguing that his client deserved a new trial because of judicial errors and prosecutorial misconduct.

Last Tuesday morning, doctors at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pa., diagnosed cardiac artery disease and found a blockage in the priest's heart, said his niece, Tracey Boyle, a registered nurse.

The family does not know whether the priest suffered a heart attack because they have been unable to speak to his doctors. The family, however, does know that when doctors implanted a stent in the priest's heart, they discovered blockages in other arteries, Boyle said. By Friday, the priest was back in the prison infirmary, as doctors mulled whether to perform further open heart surgery, his niece said.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Judge Losing Patience As Defense Challenges Mob References

By George Anastasia

Salvatore Pelulluo and Nicky Scarfo Jr. used their mob connections to intimidate and silence officials at FirstPlus Financial Group while setting up and carrying out the multi-million dollar looting of the Texas-based company, federal prosecutors contend.

And for that reason, they argue, evidence demonstrating ties to La Cosa Nostra were legitimately presented to the jury during the FirstPlus fraud trail and should not be grounds for dismissing the convictions that were delivered back in July.

Scarfo and Pelullo "allowed various FPFG officials to learn of (their) affiliation with organized crime," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steven D'Aguanno wrote in a 103-page response to a defense motion asking that the convictions be dismissed and a new trial ordered.

"That knowledge caused those officials to refrain from challenging Pelullo's and Scarfo's control of the company" and allowed Pelullo and Scarfo to carry out the "takeover and looting" of the Texas-based mortgage company, the prosecutor wrote.

U.S. District Court Judge Robert Kugler has scheduled a hearing for Friday on the defense motion and government's response. Scarfo, Pelullo and brothers John and William Maxwell, who were also convicted, are scheduled to be sentenced in January.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

When Prosecutors Cheat

By Ralph Cipriano

When Assistant District Attorney Peter Carr stood to begin oral arguments today in Superior Court, Presiding Judge Anne E. Lazarus let him know before he said a word that he was facing an uphill climb.

"You've got your work cut out for you," she warned Carr.

During the hearing, allegations of judicial errors and prosecutorial misconduct were piling up as defense lawyers for Father Charles Engelhardt and former Catholic school teacher Bernard Shero argued that their clients deserved a new trial.

Carr attempted to blow off most of the accusations as a "harmless error" here, a "not consequential" error there, and, best of all, "certainly not a "reversible error."

But Judge Lazarus cut him off and said she agreed that when weighed individually the errors might indeed be minor. But the judge said there were so many errors and her concern was that the "quantitative effect" of all those errors might have fundamentally compromised the defendants' rights to a fair trial.

It was the most powerful moment of the hearing. A half-dozen blocks away at the district attorney's office, you could almost hear Seth Williams screaming.

In the D.A.'s self-described "historic" prosecution of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Superior Court has already reversed the conviction of Msgr. William J. Lynn. In court today, defense lawyers were seeking reversals for two more defendants in that historic prosecution -- Engelhardt and Shero. Would hitting the trifecta on reversals make appellate history?

Monday, October 27, 2014

A Three-Ring Circus Starring Billy Doe

By Ralph Cipriano

How many courtrooms does it take to unravel a lie?

In the case of "Billy Doe," the answer these days is three.

Billy Doe is a grand jury's pseudonym for the former altar boy turned heroin addict who told an incredible and constantly-changing story about supposedly being raped by two priests and a school teacher.

It's a story that defies all logic and common sense, a story thoroughly disproved by evidence gathered by the district attorney's own detectives. The Billy Doe case also contradicts established patterns of abuse over 40 years as exposed in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia's  secret archive files.

But in a triumph of absurdity, a legal three-ring circus starring a clown named Billy plays on, resuming tomorrow with an 11:30 a.m. hearing in state Superior Court.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Merlino Ordered Back To Jail For 'Night On The Town'

By George Anastasia

What a federal prosecutor described as a "night on the town with his mob buddies" has resulted in a four-month prison sentence for former Philadelphia mob boss Joseph "Skinny Joey" Merlino.

U.S. District Court Judge R. Barclay Surrick imposed that sentence this afternoon after hearing more than three hours of testimony and argument in a probation violation hearing for the 52-year-old convicted Mafia leader.

Merlino, now living in Florida, will begin the sentence in 30 days, according to the order issued by Surrick. Once he completes that sentence, Merlino will no longer be on supervised release and will be free to meet and associate with whomever he chooses.

But that may be the least of his problems. According to testimony during the hearing, Merlino has been the focus on an ongoing investigation by an organized crime task force in South Florida. Authorities have apparently had the one-time South Philadelphia celebrity gangster on their radar since his arrival in the Sunshine State three years ago.


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