PHILADELPHIA (AP) — An imprisoned ex-priest at the center of a landmark Roman Catholic priest-abuse case testified Thursday that he pleaded guilty to a sexual assault he didn't commit.
Edward Avery, 70, admitted to an earlier abuse complaint, but he said he never had any contact with the accuser in an ongoing criminal trial. He said he took a plea deal in which he admitted assaulting the man because he didn't want to risk a longer sentence if convicted at trial.
Asked if he raped the 24-year-old policeman's son, Avery said: "I did not. So help me God."
The same man claims he was raped by Avery, the Rev. Charles Engelhardt and ex-teacher Bernard Shero, starting when he was a 10-year-old altar boy in 1999.
Engelhardt and Shero are fighting the charges at trial, which is expected to last into next week. Avery's testimony could bolster their defense if jurors believe him over the accuser, a longtime heroin addict who testified Wednesday.
But in questioning by prosecutors, Avery conceded that an admission would hurt him in the accuser's civil lawsuit, and perhaps subject him to harassment in prison as an admitted child molester.
A jury last year convicted Monsignor William Lynn, 62, of child endangerment for placing Avery in a parish despite the earlier sex-abuse complaint. Lynn, who served as secretary for clergy at the Philadelphia archdiocese from 1992 to 2004, called it an oversight and apologized to the policeman's son on the witness stand.
Avery's surprise plea on the eve of Lynn's trial changed the dynamics of the case. Lynn's lawyers had hoped to challenge the accuser's credibility, given his drug use and criminal history, and the varying accounts he has given about the abuse.
But Lynn's attorneys decided not to cross-examine him. If they had, jurors would have learned about Avery's guilty plea.
Lynn's lawyer, Thomas Bergstrom, told The Associated Press on Thursday: "We were damned if you do, damned if you don't."
Lynn is serving a three- to six-year prison term for endangering Avery's victim at St. Jerome's Parish in northeast Philadelphia. Avery's testimony will now be used to renew a motion for Lynn to be released on bail while he appeals his conviction, Bergstrom said.
Avery accepted a 2 1/2- to five-year term for sexually assaulting the altar boy and conspiring with Lynn and other church officials to keep him in ministry, even though Lynn had labeled him a likely predator. Avery had faced 13 1/2 to 27 years in prison had he gone to trial.
At his plea hearing, Avery answered a series of technical legal questions, and said he was pleading guilty because he had committed the crimes. But he was not directly asked if he had assaulted the boy.
Avery, wearing blue prison garb, testified Thursday that he had "no contact whatsoever" with the man.
"That question was never asked" at the guilty plea hearing, he said.
Lynn became the first U.S. church official ever convicted for his handling of abuse complaints. His three-month trial brought thousands of secret church documents on abuse complaints and suspected pedophiles — some dating to the 1940s — into the public eye.
"They were willing to sacrifice the sentence for Avery to get to Lynn. That was the game plan," Bergstrom said. "I think it's outrageous."
Tasha Jamerson, a spokeswoman for the district attorney, said Bergstrom has repeatedly made the same "tired claims."
"What we know for certain is that Avery pleaded guilty because he had evidence that made him guilty," Jamerson said.
The judge overseeing the trial of Shero and Engelhardt has issued a gag order on attorneys.
Avery, in pondering his plea last March, knew that at least five other abuse complaints had streamed in after his arrest, each involving a teen boy.
Asked about them by name Thursday by Assistant District Attorney Mark Cipolletti — who was forced to question Avery as a hostile witness — the defrocked priest admitted "horsing around, tickling, groping — by accident."
Cipolletti continued down a list of alleged sexual hijinks, such as putting ice down the boys' pants and fondling.
"Yeah," Avery replied.
But he denied their allegations of oral or anal sex.
"That absolutely never happened," he said.