By Ralph Cipriano
"Billy Doe" never underwent any drastic personality change while attending St. Jerome Catholic School.
That was the testimony today of five of Billy's former teachers from St. Jerome's who paraded through the witness stand as the defense began presenting its case at the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sex abuse trial.
Billy Doe is the pseudonym in the 2011 Philadelphia grand jury report for a ten-year-old altar boy who was allegedly raped in fifth grade by two priests who lived in the St. Jerome rectory -- Father Edward V. Avery and Father Charles Engelhardt. The following year, Billy was allegedly raped by his sixth grade teacher at St. Jerome's, Bernard Shero, after the teacher supposedly offered Billy a ride home.
The prosecution has alleged that after being raped by three predators, Billy changed from a happy-go-lucky extrovert into a dark, depressed loner. But that's not what the faculty at St. Jerome's saw.
"He was a happy child," said Joann Hayes, a teacher at St. Jerome's who taught Billy art and music from second grade through eighth grade. "I never had any problems with him," Hayes said. She remembered Billy as part of the cast in a 1999 school musical, "Christmas Show Around The World."
"He was a good kid, a happy kid" agreed Donna Klopp, who taught Billy math in second grade, and recalled that Billy always enjoyed being "the center of attention."
She remembered Billy in eighth grade as a member of the bell choir maintenance crew when she was a bell ringer for the choir.
The bell choir at St. Jerome's has become a bone of contention at the trial. Billy told the jury he was a member of the bell choir maintenance crew back in fifth grade when Father Avery asked him to stay after Mass, and then he raped him, Billy charged.
But Clopp told the jury that only eight grade boys were allowed to be members of the bell choir maintenance crew because of the heavy equipment they had to move. Not only were fifth graders barred from serving on the maintenance crew, Clopp told the jury, but so were sixth and seventh graders.
The reason was simple, Clopp testifed. The members of the bell choir maintenance crew had to set up 30-pound tables, and carry bell cases that weighed even more than 30 pounds, Clopp told the jury. Only the eighth grade boys were big and strong enough to do the job, she said.
Well, by eighth grade, hadn't Billy become a dark and depressed loner, a defense lawyer asked.
"Not in our school," Clopp told the jury.
But Clopp admitted she had no first hand knowledge of who set up the bells. Under cross-examination, Clopp told a prosecutor that she wasn't there watching when the bells were set up. By the time she showed up to ring her bell, the work of setting up the bell choir had already been done, she testified.
Eileen Friend taught Billy Doe in eighth grade at St. Jerome's. Billy was also a member of her art club.
"He was a very nice kid," she told the jury. "A kind boy, talkative with others."
But didn't he become a dark, depressed loner, a defense lawyer asked.
"Never," she said.
Friend also testified that only eighth graders were allowed to serve in the bell maintenance crew. Everybody knew who was on the crew, she said, because the boys were allowed to leave class early so they could set up for the bell choir.
Were fifth graders allowed on the bell choir maintenance crew?
"Never," she said. "They couldn't."
Elizabeth Carr taught Billy Doe in second grade. She described him as a polite, friendly boy with a great sense of humor. He was no depressed loner she said.
Janet McKeever, a teacher at St. Jerome's for 22 years, taught Billy English and was his home room teacher. She also supervised production of the yearbook in Billy's eighth grade year, 2002, when he graduated from St. Jerome's.
Billy "was very enthusiastic," McKeever recalled. He was always willing to do work for the yearbook on his home computer and bring it in to class. At the time, the Catholic school did not have up-to-date computers, Clopp said.
She recalled Billy as "very outgoing, enthusiastic." Asked by a defense lawyer if Billy ever became a withdrawn and depressed loner, McKeever replied, "I never saw that."
Instead, she recalled a "gregarious" kid who "liked to be involved in a lot of things."
"He was very upbeat, he was a very happy kid," McKeever said.
The defense also presented six character witnesses today on behalf of Father Engelhardt. The character witnesses included the priest's sister, brother-in-law, nephew and niece, as well as the provincial of Engelhardt's religious order, the Wilmington-Philadelphia province of the Oblates of St. Francis DeSales. The former athletic director of North Catholic High School also testified on behalf of Engelhardt. Bernard Shero's sister appeared on her brother's behalf as a character witness.
Sadly, under the rules of the court, character witnesses can only testify about the reputation of a person in the community for being a "peaceful and law-abiding citizen." Character witnesses were heavily used in the first archdiocese sex abuse trial last year on behalf of Msgr. William J. Lynn. The witnesses all are stuck with the same script, so they mouth the same platitudes, and in the end, it becomes a fairly meaningless ritual.
One family member of a defendant who broke out of the mold today was Bonita Shero, Bernard Shero's mother. Burton A. Rose, Shero's defense lawyer, asked Bonita Shero about her son's visual handicap.
Bonita Shero said her son was born with congenital cataracts. Between the ages of six months and seven years old, her son endured 23 surgeries, his mother testified. He is legally blind in his right eye. He has worn "heavy-duty glasses" since he was 18 months old, she said.
In school, kids were cruel to her son. "He was bullied," his mother said. "They took his glasses, they took his lunch."
His mother considered putting Bernard Shero in the Overbrook School for the Blind, but then decided to mainstream him. "He has to live in a sighted world," she said, so she wanted him to be educated in a regular school.
She told the jury how she and her husband bought a house for her son a year after he got his first teaching job at St. Jerome's in 1998. But Bernard Shero only lived there for three months before he moved out.
"The children were harassing him, throwing rocks at his home," his mother testified.
Diane Nicolo, another teacher at St. Jerome's, testified that Bernard Shero told her that "there were children throwing stones and rocks at his home."
Another defense witness was Sister Mary Fischetti, St. Jerome's parish director of service. The nun testified that the sacristy at St. Jerome's had four doors to the sacristy before it was remodeled in 2001. The doors were usually kept open, especially one that led to a bathroom used by parishioners, the nun testified.
Billy Doe told the jury he was raped in a sacristy by Father Engelhardt after a Mass during the 1998-99 school year, after the priest allegedly locked all four doors.
Were you aware of any time where all four doors of the sacristy were closed and locked, a defense lawyer asked.
"Never," the nun replied.