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Gazette Premium Content Trial underway in Colorado Springs for priest charged with sex assault on a child

By Lance Benzel Updated: June 25, 2013 at 9:39 am

During private encounters away from church, a Colorado Springs priest allegedly lavished attention on a 15-year-old altar boy - showering him with gifts and supplying him with booze, pot and cigarettes.

But according to the Rev. Charles Robert Manning's one-time assistant, all that attention came with a price.

"He told me there were three things he wanted to do before he died: To kiss me, to see me naked and to have sex with me," the former altar boy, now 18, told a jury Monday in recounting an alcohol-fueled day in the fall of 2011 in which he said Manning, 78, crossed all three wishes from his list.

Formerly a pastor at St. Gabriel the Archangel Catholic Church, 8755 Scarborough Drive in Colorado Springs, Manning has pleaded not guilty to sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust and several related counts, some alleging he supplied the boy with drugs and alcohol.

The trial before 4th Judicial District Judge Robin Chittum is expected to last 10 days. If convicted, Manning faces the potential of life in prison.

Manning was suspended from St. Gabriel in January 2012 after the teen reported the alleged abuse and is now living in a home for retired priests in the St. Louis, Mo., area, according to his attorneys. Dressed in a suit and tie and breathing from an oxygen tank, he observed the proceedings from a wheelchair at the defense table.

Testimony started Monday after more than four days of jury selection in which potential panelists were quizzed about their attitudes toward the clergy and the child sex abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic priesthood.

"This is a case about sex, drugs, alcohol and the Catholic Church," went prosecutor Michael Fisher's first words during opening statements Monday. He alleged that Manning used booze and drugs to help coax his victim into sex.

In denying the allegations, defense attorney Richard Bednarski said Manning came to the priesthood late in life, after a marrying and starting a family, and that he looked upon the boy as a surrogate grandson.

He called Manning a "prime target for false allegations" and said he is only guilty of allowing the boy to smoke marijuana in his presence, but didn't supply the drug.

Bednarski said the boy's parents allowed him to drink and smoke, and suggested Manning was following suit.

During more than four hours on the stand Monday, Manning's accuser described freewheeling parties in Manning's rectory - the home supplied by his church - in which the pair drank vodka and smoked marijuana from the priest's "gravity bong," which he sketched on an easel at the request of the prosecution.

He told the jury he met Manning after sending an email to St. Gabriel church expressing a burgeoning interest in Catholicism.

After a series of email exchanges, Manning told him he was too bright to enroll in a children's Catholic education program and instead offered private, one-on-on lessons in his church office - leading the pair to form a bond.

Within months, Manning wrote the boy into his will - naming him as a beneficiary of his bank account - and began providing him with expensive gifts, including jewelry, watches and a $3,000 used car.

Manning allowed the boy to drive even though he didn't have a driver's license or learner's permit, and once took him to a Colorado Springs tattoo parlor to get his nipples pierced.

On the day of the assault, the boy and Manning were drinking at Manning's home when the priest offered him $100 to dance in a pair of black see-through underwear, leading to sexual contact the witness described in halting fragments, his face ashen.

The former altar boy appeared shaken on cross-examination as Bednarski sought to poke holes in his account, confronting him with changing details in various reports he gave since reporting the alleged abuses.

In a previous report, the boy gave a different version of Manning's alleged sexual wish list, Bednarski pointed out, adding that some allegations about the nature and duration of sexual activity also changed during his testimony.

In response to follow-up questioning by Fisher, the accuser said he was uncomfortable during earlier questioning and that some memories had faded.

Testimony is expected to continue at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday.

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