Newsweek Questions Credibility of “Star Witness” in Church Sex Abuse Scandal

Cover story suggests prosecutors have ignored contradictions in testimony of the person known as "Billy Doe."

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A new Newsweek cover story claims that the “star witness” in the Philadelphia sex abuse scandal that sent Monsignor William Lynn, two priests and a school teacher to prison has credibility problems that undermine his testimony.

According to Newsweek, that witness — known publicly by a pseudonym, “Billy Doe” — offered conflicting stories about the incidents at the heart of his testimony, “bombed out” of a psychiatric test on the eve of a civil trial in the matter, and is a “former heroin user and dealer who had been kicked out of two high schools and been in and out of 23 drug rehabs over a 10-year period.”

Newsweek’s story — “Catholic Guilt? The Lying, Scheming Altar Boy Behind A Lurid Rape Case” — also suggests that District Attorney Seth Williams ignored the conflicts in testimony and errors in a grand jury report on the matter in his zeal to prosecute the case.

“Yes, we do continue to stand by the prosecutions and witness,” Cameron Kline, a spokesman for Williams, said via email Friday afternoon. Doe’s attorney did not immediately respond to a Philly Mag inquiry for comment.

The story was written by Ralph Cipriano, the former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter known more for his clashes with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia rather than his defense of it. But the Newsweek story is the culmination of several years of reporting — much of it aggressively challenging Billy Doe’s testimony — at the local legal blog, BigTrial.net, National Catholic Reporter, and other outlets. Indeed, Cipriano has followed the story so closely he was subpoenaed by Doe’s attorney in 2013.

Doe, now reportedly 27, first reported his accusations in 2009, that he had been serially raped as a fifth- and sixth-grader at St. Jerome’s parish school in Northeast Philadelphia by two priests and a Catholic schoolteacher. His testimony led to the imprisonment of each man — the Rev. Charles Engelhardt, former priest Edward Avery and former parish teacher Bernard Shero — and was also critical in the prosecution that sent Lynn to prison. (Engelhardt later died in prison.) His story also featured in a Rolling Stone article on the scandal, written by former Philly Mag writer Sabrina Rubin Erdely, who in turn has come under fire for a separate article on rape at the University of Virginia that turned out to have an unreliable source at its center.

Cipriano’s story suggests Doe’s testimony is similarly unreliable. Among the (long list) of apparent contradictions documented:

  • He told social workers that in the first encounter, Engelhardt had anally raped him for five hours, then threatened to kill him. At trial, though, Doe said that he and the priest “had engaged in mutual masturbation and oral sex. Gone were the five hours of anal rape and Engelhardt’s threat to kill him.”
  • Doe initially said that Shero had asked him to stay after class, then offered to drive him home — sexually attacking him during the car ride, choking and punching him in the face, then threatening to make his life a “living hell.” Cipriano writes: “But when [Doe] testified in court in 2013, he didn’t say Shero made him stay after class. This time, he said Shero pulled up across the street from a strip mall and offered him a ride home, and the attack took place in a parking lot. [Doe] dropped from this new version of his story the punch in the face, the seat belt wrapped around his neck and the threat to make his life a living hell.”
  • Doe claimed to suffer testicular pain as a result of sexual abuse; medical records indicated his first complaint about such pain predated the first alleged attack.

Doe, the story notes, has received a $5 million settlement from the archdiocese, and is free despite having been busted for drugs several times.

The archdiocese did not respond to request for comment.

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