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Catholic Church Leaders Deny Cover-Up in Father Poulson Child Sex Abuse Case
ERIE, Pa. (EYT) – Bishop Emeritus Donald Trautman and Bishop Lawrence Persico of the Catholic Diocese of Erie issued separate statements Wednesday denying a cover up by the diocese in a case involving a Fryburg priest accused of sexually abusing two young boys.
Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced criminal charges against Father David Poulson, 64, of Oil City on Tuesday.
Poulson, a Catholic priest in the Diocese of Erie for four decades until earlier this year, is accused of sexually abusing two young boys over a period of many years. One of the victims was eight years old when the priest began abusing him. The second victim was 15 when the abuse started.
Poulson faces charges of indecent assault, endangering the welfare of children, and corruption of minors. Three of the counts against Poulson are felonies. The charges were recommended by a statewide investigating grand jury, which found that Poulson sexually assaulted the boys while employed in active ministry as a priest by the Erie diocese.
Poulson was assigned to various parishes during his tenure as a priest in the Diocese of Erie. Poulson’s assignments included serving as pastor of four different parish churches, including St. Agnes in Morrisdale, St. Michael’s in Fryburg, St. Anthony of Padua in Cambridge Springs, and St. Bernadette, also in Cambridge Springs.
According to a release issued by Attorney General Shapiro, The Catholic Diocese of Erie knew since at least May, 2010, of Poulson’s sexual predator tendencies – but did nothing to report him to authorities until September, 2016, in response to a subpoena from the grand jury. The diocese even produced a May 24, 2010 secret memorandum, in which diocesan leaders confirmed complaints had been made about Poulson’s inappropriate contact with minors. In the memo – hidden in church archives for six years – Poulson admits being “aroused” by a boy, and sharing sexually suggestive texts with numerous other boys.
“Poulson assaulted one of his victims repeatedly in church rectories,” Attorney General Shapiro said at a news conference at the Erie County Courthouse where Poulson’s arrest was announced on Tuesday.
“He made that victim go to confession and confess the abuse – to Poulson. This was the ultimate betrayal and manipulation by Poulson. He used the tools of the priesthood to further his abuse.”
In response to the allegations, Bishop Trautman – who was head of the Diocese at the time of the alleged abuse – released the following statement on Wednesday:
Statement from Bishop Trautman in Relation to David Poulson Charges
First, I wish to express my prayerful support for all victims of sexual abuse. I abhor the evil of sexual abuse.
Secondly, in relation to the arrest of David Poulson, I wish to emphasize there was no cover-up of sexual abuse. In 2010, I received a fourth-hand allegation about Poulson’s contact with a young adult man. There was no allegation of physical abuse or of contact with a minor. I contacted diocesan counsel. I then immediately tried to contact the young man. There was no response after many attempts of sending letters and telephoning. From the time of the complaint, until I retired, the diocese received no other complaints about David Poulson.
Thirdly, I devoted a significant part of my tenure as bishop of the Diocese of Erie to the important issue of abuse within the church.”
I dismissed 22 priests from ministry due to sexual abuse.
I established the independent Diocesan Review Board to help oversee cases and ensured they were properly handled.
I played a large role in the development of our policy and procedures regarding sexual abuse when the US bishops established the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
I hired former FBI agents to review our records.
These facts testify to my vigilance and are a clear indication that I took the problem of sexual abuse seriously and was aggressive in the removal of abusive priests from the service of God’s people. I wish to emphasize again that there was no cover-up. Finally, let us remember the words of St. Boniface that truth can be assaulted, but never defeated.
Trautman’s successor and current head of the Erie Diocese, Bishop Lawrence Persico, released the following statement on Wednesday in response to the claims:
Statement from Bishop Persico in Relation to David Poulson Charges
The Diocese of Erie learned today that Father David Poulson, 64, former pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish, Cambridge Springs, has been charged with one felony count of indecent assault; one felony count of endangering the welfare of children; one felony count of corruption of minors; two misdemeanor counts of indecent assault; and several misdemeanors.”
Father Poulson was arraigned on the charges in Jefferson County by District Judge Gregory M. Bazylak and was placed in the Jefferson County Prison on $300,000 bond. The diocese learned of the conduct that provides the basis for these charges in January 2018 and immediately notified law enforcement. Moreover, I directed K&L Gates law firm to assist in producing to the Attorney General’s office any and all evidence they uncovered to assist in this prosecution.
I announced on Feb. 13 that I had received credible allegations against Father Poulson regarding the sexual abuse of minors. Following our Policy for the Protection of Children, I immediately turned the matter over to law enforcement and have cooperated with the state attorney general throughout the process that led to today’s arrest. ”
In February, I also accepted Father Poulson’s permanent resignation as pastor of St. Anthony Parish removed him from all other assignments and prohibited him from any public ministry and from any contact with minors.
Learning the details of the behavior with which Father Poulson has been charged has been extremely upsetting. The victims involved have endured great suffering, and I know words cannot adequately express my sorrow in the face of such devastation. I realize the general public, and especially members of the church, including our priests, are outraged and confused by these horrendous acts. I want to provide you with a clear and thorough timeline of the events.
- I became Bishop of the Erie Diocese in October 2012. At that time and until the production of documents to the Grand Jury, Father Poulson’s name was not raised.
- In 2016 and early 2017, the diocese produced records to the Grand Jury and undertook its own independent analysis through counsel. The 2010 report was flagged by the diocese’s independent counsel as a case where grooming behaviors perhaps went undetected.
- The diocese informed the Attorney General that it would be reviewing Father Poulson and attempting to contact the former student at issue in the 2010 report (who declined to speak with anyone in 2010 after a third party reported suspicions). The Attorney General’s Office did not object and indeed appreciated the diocese’s cooperation and investigative efforts.
- In 2017, the former student did not return phone calls, e-mails, or certified letters (though his identity was confirmed and he did sign for the letters). Recognizing that disclosure must take place on a victim’s terms, even the diocese’s independent lawyers and investigators were at a standstill.
- As described in the Grand Jury’s presentment, Victim #1 (not the former student that was the subject of the 2010 report) bravely came forward in January 2018 to a military chaplain to report abuse he suffered. This report was promptly provided to both state and local law enforcement. The diocese informed the Attorney General that its counsel would confront Father Poulson and collect any available evidence. The Attorney General’s Office did not object and again acknowledged the diocese’s assistance.
- Diocesan counsel forensically imaged and later analyzed numerous electronic devices in addition to interviewing Father Poulson, with much of that information being discussed in the presentment. Indeed, the diocese located the cabin and
provided text-message analysis and contact information for 21 potential victims to the Attorney General. The diocese publicly announced its suspension of Father Poulson after waiting for confirmation from state and local law enforcement that the suspension would not interfere with any law-enforcement investigation. The Grand Jury and the Attorney General then proceeded to uncover the details described in the presentment.
- The diocese apologizes for the crimes of its priests/employees and has taken numerous steps to ensure that the sins of the past are not repeated by using trained independent investigators/lawyers, improving training on detecting grooming behaviors, centralizing abuse reporting mechanisms, and understanding any missteps in detecting prior cases of abuse. The Diocese of Erie is fully committed to preventing, detecting, and reporting abuse in the best manner possible going forward.
- This situation demonstrates why the revised Policy for the Protection of Children that we unveiled on April 6 calls for us to turn all allegations over to law enforcement for investigation.
- We are committed to assisting victims on the long road to healing and wholeness, and this means offering and following a transparent, logical process. We echo the call of the State Attorney General to encourage anyone who may have additional knowledge of inappropriate or criminal activity, or who has been affected by similar improprieties, to use any of the options for reporting listed below:Pastoral care and compassion for victims, as well as the protection of children and vulnerable adults, is a top priority of the Diocese of Erie. The diocese encourages anyone who has experienced sexual abuse or misconduct by a member of the clergy or any employee or volunteer of the church, to contact law enforcement. To report abuse to the independent investigators retained by the Diocese of Erie, email ErieRCD@KLGates.com. In addition, victims or concerned individuals can report abuse to ChildLine, an outreach of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, by calling 800-932-0313. The line is open 24/7, and callers may choose to remain anonymous. Victims also are welcome to contact the diocese directly to report abuse at 814.451.1543. Counseling assistance is available for victims and/or their families through the diocesan victim assistance coordinator, Dr. Robert Nelsen, who can be reached at 814.451.1521.
According to the grand jury’s presentment made public on Tuesday:
- Poulson sexually assaulted one victim repeatedly in church rectories at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Fryburg and Saint Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Cambridge Springs. The abuse at the rectories usually happened on Sundays – after this victim served as an altar boy at Mass. These assaults took place more than 20 times.
- Poulson required this victim to make confession in church and confess to the sexual assaults – to Poulson, who served as the priest receiving the boy’s confession.
“This was the ultimate betrayal and manipulation by Poulson – he used the tools of the priesthood to further his abuse,” Attorney General Shapiro said.
- Poulson also assaulted this victim and a second victim at a remote hunting cabin that he owned with a friend in Jefferson County. The cabin was off-the-grid and was located 10 minutes off the main road in a rural location. It lacked electricity, heat or running water. Poulson would bring the youths to the cabin, watch horror movies with them on his laptop, and then assault them.
Earlier this year, the grand jury learned of the first victim’s sexual abuse by Poulson, after a military chaplain at Fort Hood, Texas, phoned the Erie diocese and said the victim – now 23 years old – had disclosed he was sexually abused by Poulson when he was a child.
Diocese officials interviewed Poulson, who admitted he owned the hunting cabin and that he took an estimated 20 trips there – half of which were with young boys. He admitted he was attracted to young men and provided the names of the boys he took to the cabin. The diocese, by this point cooperating with the Office of Attorney General and the ongoing grand jury investigation, turned the boys’ names over to investigators.
Court documents reviewed by exploreClarion.com revealed that Poulson’s longtime friend and co-owner of the property is a police officer in Clarion County.
Poulson told investigators that the two bought the property in the mid-2000’s.
During the week of March 12, 2018, the Grand Jury heard testimony from the police officer who confirmed that he shared ownership of the property with Poulson and stated that he was aware that Poulson frequented the camp with young boys.
He returned to the Grand Jury on April 16, 2018, and recounted a statement that Poulson had made when they purchased the property.
Poulson indicated his desire to see property ownership relinquished to (the police officer’s family) in the event that he (Poulson) was ever accused of molesting altar boys.
The grand jury heard from eleven men who had contact with Poulson when they were minors. The men told similar stories: Poulson was a “cool” young priest who befriended them, flirted with them, “wrestled” with them, and “joked” about his sexual preference for young boys. Poulson plied the boys with gifts, cash, dinners, and alcohol. In at least one of these cases, prosecutors believed evidence of a sexual assault existed, but it was barred on statute of limitations grounds.
“It is long past time to reform these arbitrary time frames and seek justice for our children,” Attorney General Shapiro said. “In this case, our investigators uncovered evidence of other sexual assaults – but the statute of limitations prohibited us from filing those charges. This victim – all victims – are entitled to justice.”
“The time of protecting powerful institutions over vulnerable children is over, and anyone who abuses kids will have to answer to my office,” Attorney General Shapiro said.
Authorities took Poulson into custody on Tuesday morning and transported him to the office of District Judge Gregory M. Bazylak in Brookville where he was arraigned at 10:15 a.m.
He remains lodged in the Jefferson County Jail on $300,000.00 cash bail.
A preliminary hearing is set for May 21 at 9:30 a.m. with Judge Bazylak presiding.
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