Few Penn alumni would recognize the former disc jockey at Smokey Joe’s as he stood on the witness stand in a light blue prison shirt with “DOC” — for Department of Correction — written on the back in white letters.
Last Thursday, defrocked West Philadelphia Catholic priest Edward Avery recanted his guilty plea of sexually assaulting a young boy in 1999 when called to testify during the trial against Rev. Charles Engelhardt and Bernard Shero, charged for molesting the same victim as Avery. Avery pled guilty last March and was sentenced to two and a half to five years in prison.
From September 1978 to June 1984, Avery served as assistant pastor at St. Agatha-St. James Parish on 38th and Chestnut streets. Known also as the “Smiling Padre,” Avery doubled as a disc jockey for hire.
While working at St. Agatha-St. James Parish, Avery continued molesting an altar boy from his previous assignment at St. Philip Neri Church in East Greenville, known in court proceedings under the pseudonym “James.”
In 1978, when the boy was 15, Avery took James to a job at Smokey Joe’s. There, the boy passed out from intoxication. Later that night, Avery took James to his rectory at St. Agatha-St. James Parish and raped him.
There was initial shock among Penn Catholics upon finding out about the scandal.
“It’s really shattering that this can happen within a group that you trust,” Penn Catholic Students Association President and College junior Margaret Buff said.
Despite the scandal, Penn Catholics are trying to move forward.
“As a Catholic, I don’t look at it as a reflection of the Church as an institution,” Penn Newman Catholic Ministry President and College junior Kaitlyn Kutschera said. “Penn and Catholicism in general is so much more than one person’s actions.”
Kutschera, a Philadelphia native, explained that the Philadelphia Catholic system has undergone a significant transition since the scandals. There is more communication and examination of the priests’ psychological well-being, according to Kutschera.
Now, it’s “more of coming together to create positive change,” she added.
James reported the incident in 1992, when he was 29 years old. The Archdiocese sent Avery to psychological evaluation at St. John Vianney Hospital, where he was deemed unfit to work with children.
Despite the hospital’s warnings, Avery was allowed to live at St. Jerome’s Parish while he worked as a chaplain at Nazareth Hospital. There, he twice molested a 10-year-old altar boy in 1999.
In February 2011, the district attorney charged Avery with sexual assaulting that boy, who is referred to by the pseudonym “Billy Doe.” Avery pled guilty to involuntary deviate sexual intercourse with Billy Doe and to conspiring with church officials to endanger the welfare of children in March 2012.
Although his recantation will not affect his ruling, it may hurt the prosecution in the current trial of Shero and Engelhardt, both on trial for abusing Billy.
The lawyers of Monsignor William Lynn also want to use Avery’s withdrawal to help overturn Lynn’s June 2012 conviction for child endangerment.
Philadelphia spokesperson for the Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests Karen Polesir, however, remains dubious about Avery’s claim.
“There’s something going on where he thinks he’s going to help his buddies,” she said. “No one confesses to molesting children just to save a few years in prison.”