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.
"He told my aunt he feels good he does not want us to worry," Boyle said. But she believes the appeal process in the case weighed heavily on her uncle.
"This is do or die and he has to be feeling the stress," she said.
The family has been told to expect a decision from the state Superior Court within 60 to 120 days on whether the priest will be granted a new trial. If he loses in Superior Court, Father Engelhardt, who has already been in jail for nearly two years, will face the prospect of spending at least another four years behind bars for something his family knows he didn't do.
Boyle said her big Irish family has been reeling since they heard the latest news about her uncle. They all felt helpless, she said. SCI in Coal Township is three hours away from Philadelphia. Father Engelhardt also has limited visitation.
"It was a time he needed us by his side and we were unable to be there," Boyle said. "As a nurse myself I wasn't able to be there with him and do the things I love to do on a daily basis with strangers who I treat as if they are my family in their time of need in the hospital."
The other emotion Father Engelhardt's family felt was anger.
"I pretty much blew up," Boyle said. "I was so angry and so upset because they did this to him," she said of Billy Doe and his family. "They caused him to have this episode," she said. "He shouldn't be where he is because he's an innocent man. In my eyes, he's a martyr for the church."
Last Tuesday, the priest "got up in the morning, took his hypertension medication and he started to feel dizzy," Boyle said. "His cellmate noticed how unsteady he was." The cellmate summoned a corrections officer who took Father Engelhardt to the infirmary. The infirmary called for an ambulance.
Since the priest was stricken, information on his condition has been hard to come by because hospitals routinely do not give out information on inmate patients, Boyle said.
"We had no idea what hospital he was in," she said.
Boyle did some detective work and sent the priest's great niece to visit the most likely hospital in the area to perform heart surgery. That's when Father Engelhardt's great niece found him at Geisinger Medical Center. But she still needed the approval of prison officials before he she was allowed to see him.
The priest, according to Father Jerry Dunne, one of his most frequent visitors, usually spends his days in prison reciting prayers, psalms and hymns from the Liturgy of the Hours. Father Dunne has known "Charlie" Engelhardt for more than 40 years. The two priests are fellow oblates of St. Francis DeSales.
Father Engelhardt's defense lawyer, Michael J. McGovern, visited the priest days before he was stricken, and said Father Engelhardt appeared fine and was joking with him.
"He was super," McGovern said. "I was shocked to hear the heart event but I do realize how we all internalize stress."
"I only pray that God continues to give him the strength and protect him until the time comes when this wrongful conviction is overturned and his innocence is confirmed and proclaimed to everyone," McGovern said.
"What he has gone through up to this point is a tragedy in the truest sense," McGovern said. "I am confident, however, that he will recover, and in time prevail."