Friday, January 18, 2013

Moms Say Former Teacher Was "Touchy-Feely" With Kids

By Ralph Cipriano

Two moms who volunteered as school lunch room aides told a jury today that they thought former Catholic school teacher Bernard Shero was creepy.

Bernard Shero leaving the courthouse 
"He's always been awkward, touch-feely," Denise Sosalski said. She met Shero when he was a teaching assistant at Nazareth Academy. Sosalski said she volunteered at Nazareth when her son Roman, now 24, was 8 or 9.

While working in the lunchroom, Sosalksi said, she noticed Shero "had a tendency to want to put his hand on their backs," meaning elementary school kids. Then, when her son was in sixth grade, he was out skateboarding with some friends, Sosalski testified. He came home and said that Shero, who lived in their Northeast Philadelphia neighborhood, had invited the boy and his friends into his house.

Sosalski said she walked over to confront Shero. "He was out on his lawn," she told the jury. She said she told Shero, "I'm Roman's mother; stay away from my kid."

Defense lawyers asked Sosalski when she decided to come forward to testify against Shero about events that happened back in the late 1990s. This week, she said, when a detective knocked on her door.

Apparently the district attorney's office never stops working a case.

0n cross-examination, Burton A. Rose, the lawyer representing Shero, asked Sosalski if she knew why Shero moved out of her neighborhood. She didn't. Shero told her that boys from St. Jerome's, where Shero taught after working at Nazareth, had been accused of throwing rocks at Shero's house.

Would that surprise you, Rose asked.

"Not at all," Sosalksi said with a smile.

"He was really inappropriate with those kids," Sosalksi subsequently explained to Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti.

When defense attorney Rose asked Sosalksi if she approved of what the kids were accused of, throwing rocks at Shero's house, Sosalksi said, "It's one way to get rid of somebody you're afraid of."

The next witness was Roman Sosalski, who testified that one Halloween night, Shero also invited the boy and a couple of trick-or-treating friends to come inside his house. Sosalski said he and his friends declined the invitation.

Rose asked when the detectives from the district attorney's office knocked on Roman's door.

Two days ago, he said.

Next up was Patricia Walton, who used to be a lunch room volunteer at St. Michael's in Levittown, where Shero taught after he left St. Jerome's. It was at St. Jerome's where Shero is accused of raping a former altar boy, then 11, after he gave the boy a ride home from school during the 1999-2000 school year.

Walton said that she witnessed Shero allowing "young ladies to touch his belt buckle and his tie." She also once observed Shero sitting "knees to knees" with a fourth grade student. The teacher and student were alone in a classroom on a Friday afternoon.

Walton testified she went into the classroom to make sure that Shero knew she saw him. "Have a nice weekend," she said. When the girl turned around, "the young lady was in tears," Walton said, before she began crying.

Walton told the jury she also witnessed Shero taking photos of young girls in the recess yard. When asked about the boys she said, "It was pretty evident he didn't like them."

Shero used to yell at boys a lot, she said, and one time Shero disciplined her son by making him stand against a wall out on the playground.

Walton said she took her complaints about Shero's behavior to the school principal. "He was reprimanded," she said, and told not to be alone again with a student in the classroom.

Walton said she attended a meeting at the school where she was allowed to confront Shero. The teacher got angry, she said, and pointed to his thick glasses, and told her, "See this. This is why I get close" to the students.

 For a while, she said, Shero cooperated with the new dictates, and then went back to his old habits.

At that point, Walton told the jury, she took her complaints to the police.

Courtroom observers were left to wonder whether Walton's testimony would help or hurt Shero. He can't be convicted for being weird. He's also accused of raping a boy, and Walton said Shero didn't like boys, he was interested in girls.

Not exactly a good character witness, but you take whatever you can from a prosecution witness.

Defense lawyers and the prosecution then entered into a stipulation about the testimony of an EMT who was working on Feb. 10, 2011, the night Bernard Shero attempted to commit suicide. Cipolletti stood up and read a statement for the jury's benefit that said the EMT was summoned to Shero's home for a possible drug overdose.

When she got there, the EMT learned that police had broken into the house, found Shero and placed him under arrest. Shero was wearing handcuffs when the EMT got there, and he told her in a slurred voice that he had taken one or two sleeping pills the night before.

The EMT searched the house but couldn't find any more sleeping pills. Police showed her a four-page suicide note that Shero wrote. Then she took him to the hospital by ambulance.

When the EMT asked Shero about the note, he replied, "It is just one of those things."

Shero's suicide note was the subject of testimony Thursday in court, when Detective Andrew Snyder told the jury about his role on Feb. 10, 2011, the night he came over to Shero's house to arrest him.

Snyder said he banged on the door several times, to no avail. Then, "I heard a thump," he said. "It sounded like a body" falling. Snyder said he called in the fire department, and they broke into the house.

Shero had overdosed on sleeping pills. Police found a four-page suicide note left in an envelope addressed to Mom and Dad.

Snyder was asked to read the note.

"Dear Mom and Dad," he began. The note said that Shero was "truly sorry," but added, "I do not have much of a choice here."

Shero thanked his parents for taking good care of him, and for always putting up with his "vision problem." He talked about what it was like to know he was facing arrest for allegedly raping a child.

"I have now become the burden that I never intended to me," he told his parents. He said he had been involved for some time in trying to fight the accusation, but that "there is no way I can" continue to fight. He talked how he would be "dragged through the mud" and how sorry he was that his parents would have to "live with the ridicule and the shame."

While Detective Snyder read the note, Shero, sitting at the defense table, took off his thick glasses and dabbed his eyes with a tissue.

In the note, Shero asked that if his parents could continue to support Jocelyn, a foster child through Children's International.

Shero expressed sorrow for what he was about to do, and then he told his parents there is "no way I can put you through the grief and anguish this will cause."

He concluded the note by saying "my hope" is that he would be able to "watch over" his parents in heaven, and that some day he would be able "to see you there."

Snyder was also the detective assigned to investigate Billy Doe's story after police received a letter on Jan. 30, 2009, from an archdiocese lawyer, detailing the accusations Billy had made when he called  an archdiocese hot line for sex abuse.

Snyder told the jury how he drove up to Graterford Prison on Jan. 20, 2010, took Billy out of jail, and over to the district attorney's office. During an interview that lasted several hours, Billy asked his parents, who were present during the interview, to step outside "whenever he was gonna tell me something graphic,"Snyder said.

"He was visibly upset, he was crying," Snyder told the jury.

On cross-examination, defense lawyers pointed out inconsistencies in Billy's story. Billy told the jury he had one sexual encounter in the sacristy with Father Engelhardt after Mass, but he told Detective Snyder and a grand jury that he had two sexual encounters with the priest.

Billy told the detective that he and the priest had engaged in masturbation, but Billy told the grand jury that he engaged in oral sex with the priest. Billy told counselors for the archdiocese that Father Engelhardt had locked the doors of the sacristy and pounded Billy for five consecutive hours of anal sex.

Defense lawyers quizzed Detective Snyder about Billy's last drug arrest in November 2009, when he was found with more than 50 bags of heroin. The case has been continued for a year and a half.

Defense lawyers asked Detective Snyder why he made some calls on Billy's behalf in an attempt to find him a new drug rehab, after he'd been kicked out of the last one.

"He's a victim of a crime," the detective told the jury. "I would help anybody."

At the conclusion of today's courtroom session, which ended before lunch, Judge Ellen Ceisler told the jury that by law the guilty plea entered into by former priest Edward V. Avery "cannot be taken as substantive evidence" against the two defendants on trial. Shero and Father Charles Engelhardt are both accused of raping a former altar boy identified in a 2011 Philadelphia grand jury report as Billy Doe.

Ceisler also told the jury that it was proper for Assistant District Attorney Cipolletti to question Avery on a wide variety of topics after he came to court Thursday and became a hostile witness. Whether Avery was a credible witness, and whether Cipolletti was able to successfully impeach Avery's credibility are matters for the jury to decide.

"That's up to you," the judge said.

During a courtroom break, the judge advised lawyers on both sides to be prepared to make closing statements next Friday.

The prosecution is expected to introduce its last two witnesses on Tuesday, when the trial resumes after the Martin Luther King holiday. The prosecution is expected to call as witnesses the woman who was the principal of St. Michael's when Patricia Walton complained about Shero's behavior.

The last prosecution witness is a doctor who examined Billy Doe back when he was a sixth-grader, but could not determine the source of what Billy told the jury was "testicular pain."

The defense is expected to put on its case over four days next week. The judge told defense lawyers if they have to have their witnesses waiting outside the courtroom for two days, so be it.

"Your Honor, I can't close down St. Jerome's for two days," replied Michael J. McGovern, who represents Father Engelhardt.

When Billy Doe testified earlier this week, McGovern read a long list of teachers, and asked if Billy recognized the names. These former teachers are expected to be quizzed about whether they noticed any dramatic change in Billy's personality, as has been alleged by Billy and prosecutors.

McGovern told the judge that he has served a subpoena on Billy's older brother. The brother, now a lawyer, went to St. Jerome's, and served as an altar boy, without incident. He also went on to Archbishop Ryan, the school that Billy was kicked out of.

There's a gag order in the case that prevents lawyers on both sides from talking to reporters. But it looks like the defense plans to use Billy's older brother in an attempt to impeach Billy's testimony.

The courtroom buzz is that both defendants are expected to testify on their own behalf.

Assistant District Attorney Cipolletti was overheard to say he was thrilled about the opportunity to cross-examine both defendants.


  1. Ralph -
    Overall, nice article. However, you did get one major development incorrect. Billy did NOT mention oral sex to the detective. This was ANOTHER inconsistency in Billy's story highlighted in the cross-examination.

    1. You're right about oral. Made the fix. Good catch.

  2. Ralph,

    Correct me if I am wrong. With the witnesses on tap for Tuesday according to the article above and everyone who has already testified for the prosecution to date, the only one who has acknowledged that Fr. Charles Engelhardt exists on this earth is Billy, right? His mother and father said they did not know or remember him during testimony. Mrs. St Pierre, the PTA president who claimed she was at school all the time and her son, a friend and alter boy in the same grade as Billy, did not remember he was even at the parish when asked directly. The other friend and alter boy, who testified after St. Pierre was asked the same question and said he did not remember Fr Engelhardt was at the parrish. Please correct me if I am wrong, but I think the DA maybe forgot about him. Maybe someone should tell the DA that he exists on this earth?? Maybe there is no case against Fr. Engelhardt?? What do you think...

    1. Father Engelhardt appears to be the guy that nobody remembers. I wonder what the jury will make of that.

    2. This trial continues to facinate! I can't imagine not remembering one of my parish priests if I were involved in the parish, i.e. a teacher, an altar server, a CCD volunteer, PTA member, etc. So strange!

    3. This reminds me of the accusations against Cardinal Bernadin of Chicago that turned out "not true'. Or the falsely accused Irish priest on the Tel Erin? BBC?. Possibly like this case. A perfect example of mendacity for the benefit of who? The corporate Church of course. Why would the accusor have so many stories? One can always get a ready supply of drugs in any prison for a price. What exactly that "price" might consist of, could be a whacked and easily discounted case. You gotta love the balls on the Catholic Church!

  3. The following is a continuation of the e-mails between Fr. Chaput and myself regarding priests still under archdiocese investigation:

    From: Dennis Ecker []
    Sent: Saturday, October 13, 2012 11:30 AM
    To: Archbishop Charles Chaput
    Subject: Re: Don't you believe it is now time ?

    Dear Father,

    A day has past since I have received your response to my e-mail and I must inform you I am still in shock.

    Clearly my letter is a request to release your findings regarding the remaining priests being investigated by you.

    How you perceive my letter as "pressure" to do those things is
    unsubstantiated. I will never promise anything to anyone in exchange for doing the right thing and with all respect that includes you

    In closing, what does it take for you to release those findings as you stated in your response ?


    Dennis Ecker

    Response from Fr. Chaput

    Dennis, I have every reason to desire to release the findings as they become “releasable.” The findings are not complete so I resist pressure from you or others to act precipitously.

    Why did you write if not to pressure me to release the findings? That is “pressure.” How else can it be understood? I could also say that I am “shocked” that you asked me to act precipitously. I am sure that you are sincere but you are acting without sufficient information to act as you do.

    God bless you.


    From: Dennis Ecker []
    Sent: Saturday, October 13, 2012 7:56 PM
    To: Archbishop Charles Chaput
    Subject: Re: Don't you believe it is now time ?

    Here is the reason why I wrote:

    Statement made by you to the National Catholic Register

    Dated 5/04/2012

    “The work of the special team investigating the 26 priests publicly placed on leave by Cardinal [Justin] Rigali last year is now largely done,” he said. “Eight of the 26 cases are being announced today. Most of the remainder will be announced in a matter of weeks.”

    Are these your words ?

    Response from Fr. Chaput

    Dennis, I cannot release information I do not have. I will not continue to repeat myself over and over again to you. It is not a good use of your time or my time.

    God bless you.


  4. Emperor! You aren't wearing any clothes!!!!

    What a defensive twit.

  5. The kids chased the molester out of the neighborhood??? I had to stop right there and contemplate that. The kids chased the molester out of the neighborhood by throwing rocks at his house. That's quite an image to evoke in this trial. It's totally heroic. Thank you, kids, for what you did back then. Kids coming to the rescue of kids. Bravo.

    1. "The molester"? Really? How do you know that?

      With endless resources, the prosecution has had over two years to find another person besides Danny to claim that Shero molested him. They have found no one.

      Thrown rocks at a teacher's house is not evidence of molestation.

    2. He attempted suicide on the day he was supposed to surrender. People don't kill themselves because they didn't do the crime. They kill themselves because they got caught. I'm still looking for the text of the suicide note. It sounds very damaging. Catholics who kill themselves believe they're going straight to hell. He would have never taken those pills or written that note if he was innocent. That's why I'm calling him the molester.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Ralph, I did not expect this trial to be as facinating as the last. It is. And, thank you as always, for your candid reporting and talent for writing. My head is spinning with all the "ins and outs" and curious and peculiar judicial and legal maneuvers. Wow.

    I am Catholic. However, that does not mean I don't know there have been hideous abuses of power and certain children ruined by certain hideous priests.

    I, and my three siblings, got through the whole Catholic Church grade school thing completely unscathed. However, my Home Church, Queen of the Universe in Levittown housed some of the worst perpetrators. It disgusts me.

    I continue to work for the Church as a Volunteer CCD (PREP} teacher. I teach children to pray. There is no more important vocation for me.

    I have been saddened by all of these relevations for a long, long time. But, when accusations are untrue...well, that makes me even sadder.

    1. Archie I think anyone who makes a false accusation should be thrown in jail but I have to ask how you say that you are saddened about the revelations (abuse) but are sadder about false accusations. Both are horrible, but doesn't the abuse of a child tilt the scales of depravity?

    2. Of course it does, Ko. There can be nothing worse than that, I'm sorry I wrote that, and certainly don't think that. It just hit me a certain way last night, and I never meant to imply that lying is worse than sexual abuse. It's not. Please forgive.

  7. The story shifts easily from the heroism of the kids to the utter cowardice of the teacher in his attempt at sleeping pill suicide and his suicide note to his parents. Did he say in there he has a foster child, a girl?

    We close out the week with some intriguing thoughts about whether Billy's brother will attempt to impeach him next week. This sounds like a bad idea no matter who prevails. Really bad idea.

  8. The neighbors testimony that Shero was the neighborhood weirdo seems too remote; and a bit of a reach. This case should be a quick acquittal of Engelhardt; and Shero seems like a sad sack. The DA is lucky that this case was severed from Lynn's. It is starting to become a farce. And I say that as someone who started out supporting the prosecution. Canvassing neighbors during trial to testify that a guy is an oddball is pretty desperate.

    1. Kopride, your expert legal commentary is so very welcome on this site. We all come to this site with a particular bias, but you really understand and know the law, and have a uniquely articulate way of explaining it to the rest of us. Thank you!

  9. What is the jury thinking now? The Sosalskis (sounds like scraping the bottom of the barrel for witnesses) and Patricia Walton who says, "He doesn't like boys", hmmm....this may end before next Friday!

  10. Sarah, it may be hard to believe a teacher moving out of a house because of harassment, but it is very common. I have worked in many schools and have known many people who have had their houses and cars vandalized because of students finding out where they live and in return had to move.
    The statement of a little girl crying- students come to teachers for everything- a fall, shoe to be tied, someone being mean to them...... If Walton was that concerned, would she really have left the student alone with Shero?

    Also, I found it very interesting that Sosalski from st. Jerome's and Walton from st. michaels in Levitown left together in the same SUV. What are the chances of a northeast Philadelphia resident and a Levitown resident having the same complaint and knowing each other- hmmmm???? And to make matters worse, they were both contacted 2 days prior by detectives- makes you think? I also think Sodalski thought she was on Judge Judy- waving to the jurors thinking she was a celebrity.

    1. Could not agree more to this comment! I work in a school, too. This is all true.


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