Before Rolling Stone ran with Jackie’s story they bought Billy’s.
“Jackie” is the first name of the freshman at the University of Virginia who claimed she was gang-raped at a frat house by seven men.
“Billy Doe” is the pseudonym for a former altar boy from Philadelphia who claimed he was raped at St. Jerome Parish by two priests and a Catholic schoolteacher.
Sabrina Rubin Erdely, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone, wrote both stories.
Will Dana, the managing editor of Rolling Stone, has already apologized for the November 19 story about a gang rape at the frat house by saying the magazine’s trust in Jackie was “misplaced.” Dana also said the factual discrepancies in Jackie’s story were “deeply unsettling.”
But the factual discrepancies in Jackie’s story are dwarfed by the factual discrepancies in Billy’s story that was published in the September 15, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone. I know, because I’m a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times and Philadelphia Inquirer who’s been documenting Billy’s astonishing lack of credibility for the past two years on bigtrial.net.
The holes in Jackie’s story began with the frat house not having any event scheduled the night of the alleged attack. Then, Jackie claimed the alleged ringleader of the attack was a frat member who worked as a lifeguard at the campus pool. But when the fraternity checked the employee roster at the campus pool, no member of the frat worked there. In addition, another alleged attacker accused by Jackie turned out to belong to a different frat.
Billy Doe can rack up three factual discrepancies on his way to the bathroom.
Erdely’s problems with the Billy Doe story began when she accepted as gospel, as did other reporters, a 2011 Philadelphia grand jury report that claimed Billy was raped as a 10-year-old altar boy by two priests, who passed him around like a piñata, and then a year later, by his sixth-grade homeroom teacher at his parish school.
The Philadelphia district attorney, Seth Williams, also ran with Billy’s story without doing any investigating.
Rolling Stone can run a correction. But what do you do about sending four men to jail for a sexual crime spree that may have only taken place in the imagination of a junkie criminal scheming to get out of jail? That’s the problem we have here in Philadelphia.
Erdely’s Billy Doe story was published under the headline, “The Catholic Church’s Secret Sex-Crime Files.”
It may not have been Erdely’s fault that the grand jury report was subsequently found by this reporter to be intellectually dishonest and contain more than 20 factual errors. But Erdely did write a one-sided story that Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, ripped at the time as yellow journalism for “the factual errors, the stereotypes, the grand omissions and the melodramatic language.”
Erdely had an undisclosed conflict of interest, first noticed by reporter Paul Farhi of The Washington Post, as the wife of an assistant district attorney, Peter Erdely, in the Philadelphia D.A.’s office. She only interviewed people who ripped the church, such as a couple of former prosecutors, two critical former priests, a sex abuse victim and a former seminarian kicked out for disciplinary reasons.
But Billy Doe had an arrest record; six busts as an adult for theft and drugs, including one bust with intent to distribute 56 bags of heroin. He’d been in and out of 23 different drug rehabs. And every time he told his story the details kept changing.
What Erdely didn’t know was that, before the district attorney ran with Billy’s claims in the grand jury report, Billy’s story had already drastically changed, as revealed in formerly confidential police records and grand jury transcripts.
When he first reported his claim of abuse on January 30, 2009, Billy told two social workers for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia that he had allegedly been:
Anally raped for five hours inside the church sacristy after an early-morning Mass by Father Charles Engelhardt, who afterward threatened to kill Billy if he told anybody about it.
Punched in the head and knocked unconscious inside the church by Father Edward Avery; when the fifth grader woke up, he was allegedly naked and tied up with altar sashes. According to Billy, Avery proceeded to anally rape Billy so brutally he bled for a week.
Punched in the face by his sixth-grade school teacher, Bernard Shero, and strangled with a seat belt before the teacher allegedly raped him in the backseat of a car.
But when Billy subsequently told his story to a grand jury and the police, all the allegations about anal rape, the death threat, being punched in the head and knocked unconscious, tied up naked with altar sashes, being punched in the face and strangled with a seat belt, all of those details were dropped.
Instead, Billy told a whole new story about allegedly being forced to perform a strip tease, and engage in oral sex and mutual masturbation with the same trio of assailants. This was the story reported uncritically by the grand jury and printed in Rolling Stone.
Two years after the district attorney ran with Billy’s story in the January 21, 2011 grand jury report, the district attorney’s detectives finally got around to investigating Billy. And what did they discover? That all the witnesses they talked to, including Billy’s mother, brother and former teachers, contradicted Billy.
Here’s what the grand jury report and Rolling Stone alleged, and what the D.A.’s detectives discovered:
Billy claimed Engelhardt attacked him in the sacristy after an early morning Mass. His mother, however, kept meticulous calendars chronicling the daily events of Billy and his older brother—both altar boys at the same parish—including the Masses they served. Mom’s calendars didn’t list one early morning Mass for Billy during his entire fifth-grade year when the attack allegedly occurred.
Billy claimed Engelhardt accosted him when he was an altar boy putting away wine after Mass. But his older brother, an altar boy and a sexton, said it was the job of the sexton to put away the wine after Mass.
Billy claimed Father Avery raped him when he was a fifth-grader putting way the bells after a bell choir concert at the church. Three of Billy’s former teachers, however, told detectives that only eighth-grade boys were allowed to become members of the bell choir maintenance crew for a simple reason: Only eighth grade boys were strong enough to lift 30-pound tables and carry bell cases that weighed 30 pounds. As a fifth-grader, Billy only weighed 63 pounds. The teachers’ story was backed up by the school yearbooks.
Billy claimed the two priests who raped him used the code word “sessions” to describe their alleged sex parties with Billy. The two priests told their lawyers they never used that word. Detectives found a more credible explanation for the origin of sessions when they talked to one of Billy’s former drug counselors. He said that sessions was the word counselors used to describe one-on-one and group therapy sessions with drug addicts like Billy, who was certainly familiar with the lingo.
The grand jury report and Rolling Stone claimed that Billy kept two books under his bed about sex abuse because he was trying to come to terms with the horrific attacks he’d been subjected to. But Billy told detectives he kept the books under his bed because they had hardcovers, which he used to crush Xanax capsules he was snorting. When the detectives examined the book covers they found numerous indentations.
There’s more. When she wrote her story, Erdely quoted from the church’s “secret archive files” that documented sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia over four decades. The files, pried loose with search warrants, documented the crimes of 169 priests, who raped and abused hundreds of children.
But those files contradict Billy’s story. Not once in 45,000 pages of documents is there an instance of one abuser priest trusting another abuser priest enough to pass along a victim, as alleged by Billy. Also, in the secret archive files, predator priests spend years patiently grooming victims by building up trusting relationships with children, as well as their parents and other family members. In Billy’s stories, however, three predators with no relationship with Billy or his family strike without warning.
Often in the secret archive files, predator priests target broken families. Billy’s father, however, was a sergeant in the Philadelphia police department, his mother a registered nurse. Billy also had a live-in grandmother that was a second mother to him. And a brother two years older who was a student and altar boy at the same school.
The family lived only a mile away from the church, but according to testimony, drove their sons to and from Mass when they served as altar boys.
What are the odds that in such a family a boy 10 and 11 years old is brutally raped by three different men over the period of a year, and nobody—not his mother, father or brother, or any teacher or priest or nun at the school—sees or hears a thing? Not even some bloody underwear.
There are also many problems with the investigation done by the D.A.’s office. It began on January 28, 2010, when a detective bailed Billy out of jail and drove him to the D.A.’s office, where his parents were allowed to sit in on the interview. Billy was 21 at the time, and normal procedures in the city police and district attorney’s office call for interviewing an adult complainant and his parents separately.
District Attorney Seth Williams has never explained why Billy’s parents were allowed to sit in on that initial interview. He has not explained any of the factual discrepancies in Billy’s many stories, and why the D.A. would proceed with what Williams described as a “historic” prosecution of the church with a star witness so lacking in credibility.
Instead, the D.A.’s only response to me for the past two years has been to stonewall. And other than my blog, nobody in the media has bothered to ask Williams about Billy.
Four men—three priests and a school teacher went to jail because of Billy’s allegations, and one of those men, Engelhardt, died in prison on November 15, a couple weeks after his lawyers were in appeals court, arguing that he deserved a new trial. The priest, according to his superior, Father James J. Greenfield, spent his last hours handcuffed to a hospital bed guarded by two armed corrections officers.
Rolling Stone can run a correction. What can Seth Williams say to the family of Father Engelhardt?