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Shapiro Urges Legislation Change in Statute of Limitation on Sexual Abuse Cases Following Former Fryburg Priest’s Guilty Plea
BROOKVILLE, Pa. (EYT) – Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro is urging the Senate to reform the statute of limitations on sexual abuse cases following a guilty plea on Wednesday morning by a former priest.
(Photos by Dave Cyphert of ProPoint Media.)
Attorney General Shapiro appeared at the Jefferson County Courthouse to address the issue of sexual abuse and assault in Pennsylvania following the entrance of a guilty plea by Father David Poulson on Wednesday morning.
Poulson was charged earlier this year by a Statewide Investigating Grand Jury probing widespread sexual abuse by clergy against children in six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, including the Diocese of Erie.
“A diocesan priest, using victims who were just eight and fifteen years old when their abuse began – This predator priest assaulted one of his victims more than twenty times. Usually, he did so at church rectories in the Erie diocese after mass on Sundays, one of the victims served as an altar boy,” Shapiro said.
“Poulson used the tools of his priesthood to abuse children, even making one of those victims go to confession and seek forgiveness for being sexually assaulted. The priest who heard the confession was Poulson himself.”
According to the grand jury’s presentment:
- 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 the victim served as an altar boy at Mass. These assaults took place more than 20 times.
- Poulson required this victim to make confession to the sexual assaults – to Poulson, who heard the boy’s confession.
- Poulson also assaulted this victim and attempted to assault a second victim at a remote hunting cabin that he owned with a friend in Jefferson County. In an effort to assault them, Poulson would bring the youths to the cabin and watch horror movies with them on his laptop.
“Poulson also assaulted this victim and attempted to assault a second boy at a remote hunting cabin he owned with a friend right here in Jefferson County. In an effort to assault them, he lured the victims to the cabin for a weekend stays. They watched horror movies together on his laptop while they lived out the horror inflicted on them by Father Poulson,” Shapiro noted.
“Today there can be no doubt David Poulson is a priest who preyed on children for his own sexual gratification He is now an admitted sexual predator and will be registered as a sex offender for a minimum of ten years.”
Poulson, of Oil City, pleaded guilty to corruption of minors and endangering the welfare of children in a hearing in Jefferson County Common Pleas Court on Wednesday morning.
“These are third-degree felonies. Poulson faces a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison and a fine of $30,000.00. He will face sentencing in about 90 days from now in order to have an evaluation by the state sexual offenders board. I want to be clear, we will most certainly be seeking jail time for Father Poulson.”
According to the report released by the grand jury, the Erie Diocese knew about Poulson’s sexual predator tendencies since at least May of 2010 but failed to do anything to report him to authorities until September 2016 and only did so then in response to a subpoena from the grand jury.
“The bishop of the Erie diocese who first learned about Poulson was bishop David Troutman who interviewed Poulson back in May of 2010 when he admitted to being aroused by boys. Despite knowing of Poulson’s admission, the priest was allowed by the diocese to continue in ministry until he was finally suspended by Bishop Persico in 2018. During that time period, Poulson abused again.”
Poulson was assigned to various parishes during his tenure as a priest in the Diocese of Erie. His assignments included serving as Pastor of St. Agnes in Morrisdale; St. Michael’s in Fryburg; St. Anthony of Padua in Cambridge Springs; and St. Bernadette in Cambridge Springs.
Attorney General Shapiro was joined at Wednesday’s news conference by senior prosecutors in the Attorney General’s Office and by Jim VanSickle, who was abused by Poulson as a young man, but whose case was barred by the criminal statute of limitations.
The findings of the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury, released in an 884-page report in August, revealed pervasive abuse of children by priests in the Dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Harrisburg, Greensburg, Pittsburgh, and Scranton, and a systematic cover-up spanning decades by senior church leaders in Pennsylvania.
The grand jury found:
- 301 Catholic priests identified as predator priests who sexually abused children.
- Over 1,000 children abused by predator priests, with the grand jury noting it believed the real number of victims was in the “thousands.”
- Senior church officials, including bishops, monsignors, and others, knew about the abuse committed by priests but covered it up to avoid scandal, criminal charges against priests, and monetary damages to the dioceses.
- Priests committed acts of abuse upon children and were routinely shuttled to other parishes, while parishioners were left unaware of predators in their midst.
Initial Grand Jury Report
Locally, the initial grand jury report includes accusations against the following individuals:
- Father Donald Cooper (deceased) who served at St. Charles in New Bethlehem, PA, from 6/1975-11/1984;
- Monsignor James P. Hopkins (deceased) who served as Pastor at St. Titus Church in Titusville, PA, during an unknown time and as Pastor at an unknown church in East Brady, PA during the 1920s;
- Reverend Joseph W. Jerge (deceased) who served as Parochial Vicar at St. Joseph, Oil City, PA from 5/23/1959 – 8/29/1964;
- Father Gerard Krebs (deceased) who served in Secondary Education at Venango Christian High School in Oil City, PA from 7/26/1964 – 6/3/1970, as Weekend Assistant at St. Stephen’s in Oil City, PA from 7/26/1964 – 6/3/1970, and was a resident of St. Stephen’s Rectory in Oil City, PA from 6/3/1970 – 9/8/1970;
- Father Salvatore Luzzi who served as Faculty at Venango Christian High and resided at St. Joseph, Oil City, PA from 6/09/1962 – 8/29/1968;
- Monsignor Daniel Martin (deceased) who served as Pastor at St. Joseph in Oil City, PA from 1970 – 1974;
- Reverend John L. Murray who served as Special Ministry and as Headmaster at DuBois Central Catholic HS from 8/27/1966 – 1/31/1969 and served at St. Bernard as Administration with Residence in Falls Creek, PA 6/16/1967 – 10/15/1968;
- Father Jan Olowin who served at St. Joseph in Oil City, PA from 8/25/1986 – 11/07/1992, at St. Michael in Emlenton, PA from 8/22/2008 – 8/31/2012, and as Chaplain at Clarion University of Pennsylvania from 8/22/2008 – 8/31/2012;
- Reverend John A. Piatkowski (deceased) who served at Assumption Church in Sykesville, PA from 5/22/1948 – 11/16/1970;
- Reverend Samuel B. Slocum, who served as Secondary Education at DuBois C.C. High School in DuBois, PA from 6/05/1980 – 8/12/1983, as Weekend Asst. at St. Michael in DuBois, PA from 6/05/1980 – 8/12/1983, and as Administrator at St. Benedict in Ridgway, PA from 1/05/1985 – 6/14/1985;
- Monsignor Thomas Snyderwine who served as Weekend Asst. at St. Michael in DuBois, PA from 6/05/1968 – 6/03/1971, as Faculty at DuBois Central Catholic in DuBois, PA from 6/05/1968 – 6/03/1971, and as Administrator at St. Joseph in DuBois, PA from 1/01/1970 – 6/01/1970;
- Father Chester Gawronski who served at St. Joseph in Oil City from 06/1976 – 09/1978;
- Father William Presley who served at St. Cosmas and Damian in Punxsutawney from 05/1956 – 06/1965, at Immaculate Conception in Brookville from 05/1971 – 08/1971, and at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Sykesville from 04/1990 – 07/2000 (three separate assignments);
- Father Thomas Smith who served at St. Patrick in Franklin from 06/03/1970 – 02/12/1971, at St. Cosmas and St. Damian in Punxsutawney from 06/23/1978 – 06/01/1981, and at St. Joseph in DuBois from 10/23/1984 – 02/05/1985; and
- Father David L. Poulson who served as Pastor, St. Michael, Fryburg, PA from 6/07/2000 – 6/30/2006 and as Pastor at St Michael again (2nd 6-year term) in Fryburg, PA from 7/01/2006 – 11/08/2010.
Another Local Priest Added to List This Summer
In July, another local name was added to the seemingly never-ending list of Catholic clergymen and laymen “credibly accused” of sexual misconduct.
The Diocese of Erie announced that allegations were brought forth against Father William A. Rice, retired and living in Fryburg, Pa.
Rice is accused of sexual harassment involving both children and adults. Following diocesan policy, law enforcement was informed, an independent investigation was launched, and Bishop Persico placed him on administrative leave. Father Rice has been informed he is to refrain from all public ministry while the investigation continues. He is to have no contact with children.
Rice served at St. Michael parish in Fryburg.
His name was not one of those released by the grand jury, and no charges have been filed at this time.
Grand Jury Recommendations
The Grand Jury went on to lay out four recommendations to attempt to ensure such abuse never happened again:
- The elimination of the criminal statute of limitations for child sex abuse
- The creation of a two-year civil window to sue perpetrators and institutions over claims that would otherwise be barred by time limits in state law.
- The enactment of new laws that specify that confidentiality agreements do not cover or prevent communication with law enforcement
- The clarification of penalties for continued failure to report child abuse
Shapiro Discusses Statute of Limitations Reform
“The Pennsylvania House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a civil window on the statute of limitations reform for victims. The house also passed (a) bill that will eliminate the criminal statute of limitations for sexual abuse, though I will note your representative in Jefferson County, Representative Cris Dush, voted against these commonsense reforms,” Shapiro noted.
According to a roll call published on the House of Representatives website, other local representatives, including Rep. Donna Oberlander and Rep. R. Lee James voted in favor of the bill amending the civil statute of limitations.
Under current Pennsylvania laws, victims are barred from filing lawsuits after turning 30. Prior to 2002, state law required victims to sue within two years of being victimized.
Shapiro further reinforced the grand jury recommendations on Wednesday, calling on the Pennsylvania Senate to pass legislation related to the four grand jury recommendations.
“Today is the final day of session for the State Senate before they adjourn for the rest of the year, before they go home to their districts to campaign and ask the people of Pennsylvania for their support. They have a choice to make today in their final session. They can stand with victims like Jim VanSickle, they can stand with survivors of child sexual abuse and vote yes on these four reforms as the House has done and as Governor Wolf has pledged to. But, it’s up to one man. Your state senator, Senator Joe Scarnati, whether these reforms ever get a vote.”
“They talked about a so-called compromise or some other measure that might be put on the floor this afternoon. Let me be crystal clear, the only reforms that I am for, the only reforms that the survivors are for, the only reforms the Governor is for, are the reforms put forth by the grand jury. The Senate of Pennsylvania, and Senator Scarnati, in particular, has a choice to make. They have just hours left to make that choice: will they stand with survivors, or instead, will they stand in the corner with the lobbyists for the Catholic Church and the insurance industry who are working very hard against these reforms.”
The Republican majority has opposed the provision for changing the civil statute of limitations recommended by the grand jury, though similar windows have been approved over the years in several other states.
“There is a reckoning going on in this country, and certainly right here in this county, about whether we will hold big powerful institutions accountable for protecting their reputation instead of protecting victims. We’ve made it clear where we stand in the Office of Attorney General. We stand with the people, not the powerful institutions. We stand with survivors. We’re listening to victims.”
“Our investigation here in Pennsylvania, the charges like those against Poulson, are a key part of that national conversation that is occurring. For far too long in this country, the practice has been to investigate the victims of abuse, not the abusers. Well, the bravery and courage of the victims is sparking a fundamental change in that dynamic.”
Shapiro: “No matter who abuses a child, no one is above the law”
“Today’s guilty plea, here in Jefferson County, by a predator priest, is a clear statement: no matter who abuses a child, no one is above the law, and we will apply the law without fear or favor.”
Late Wednesday afternoon, Attorney General Shapiro issued an additional statement as the Pennsylvania Senate’s leadership considered moving forward on a proposal that does not contain the four reforms as recommended by the Statewide Grand Jury.
“I stand with the survivors of clergy abuse and the 23 men and women of the Grand Jury, who made four specific recommendations after hearing gut-wrenching testimony for 2 ½ years and reviewing evidence of child sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania,” Attorney General Shapiro said.
“The proposal that the Senate Republicans are discussing with their members does not meet that standard and is unacceptable.”
“Just this morning, I was in Jefferson County to accept a guilty plea from a priest whose abuse of two victims was allowed to occur by a bishop in Erie who covered it up for eight years. That cover-up should not be without consequence – the institution cannot be left off the hook – yet that’s precisely what the Senate proposed to do.”
“I hope that Senate Majority Leader Corman will listen to the facts, reality, and analysis I presented to him, and that he goes back to his caucus and talks with his members so that they ultimately join with the Grand Jury and stand with survivors. There needs to be a civil window in the statute of limitations on child sexual abuse- and that window needs to apply to everyone.”
“The Catholic Church – the very institution that enabled this abuse – cannot be exempt.”
“The Senate is now alone on an island. The House, the survivors, the 23 grand jurors, Representative Rozzi and myself all stand together in support of the four recommendations of the Grand Jury and against this Senate proposal.”
“Senators have a tough choice to make over the next few hours. Will they choose to stand with victims and survivors and vote yes on the Grand Jury’s four recommended reforms? Or will they stand with the Church, its lobbyists and the insurance industry and fail to act?”
At the end of the session on Wednesday, Republican leaders in the Senate failed to push through their compromise on the bill aimed at helping older victims of clergy abuse gain the right to sue, leaving the issue in limbo as they wrapped up the final voting day of the legislative season.
A Victim Speaks
Jim VanSickle, who was abused by Poulson as a young man, but whose case was barred by the criminal statute of limitations, also spoke briefly to the members of the press in attendance following Wednesday’s press conference in Brookville.
“I’ve waited 37 years of my life for this day in court, although it’s not my day in court,” VanSickle said.
“As far as this whole day, this was about two young men who were brave enough to come forward and tell their story to the grand jury and strong enough to stand up and go through this process.”
“I’m happy for them. I hope that they can heal and not have to live the life that I have lived, feeling like I wasn’t heard because they were.”
VanSickle also shared that he credits the two individuals who testified against Poulson for his decision to come forward.
“I came forward because of the two young me in this case. I don’t think I could have lived without doing that. I knew it immediately, but it took me a day or two to call,” he stated.
Though the current statute of limitations has prevented VanSickle from getting his own day in court, he is focusing his energy on moving forward and helping others to move forward.
“I think it’s important that people understand that for me this isn’t the end, this is just the beginning. David Poulson is now a predator, he’s guilty. I still would like to see him in court under the law, but I’ve started a new process in my life where I’m speaking out, and I will continue to speak out. I’m now working with Stop Child Predators out of Washington, D.C., and we’re not ending here in Pennsylvania, we’re taking the next step. We’re going to go state to state lending resources and support to those people who are already on the ground and see if we can affect change around the country.”
While he is seeking to help others and affect change, he is still working on healing his own wounds from the abuse he suffered at the hands of his former priest.
“Since I came forward for the first time in March, every step that I’ve taken, every story that I’ve heard, every person who’s reached out to me through Facebook, or on the street, or even speaking with each of you has been a step toward that healing.”
“I think any survivor will tell you that there’s no such thing as complete healing, but I think the Lord has put that in me to keep me in the fight to keep me angry enough to keep stepping forward. I am healing, I am able to stand here in front of you, proudly, and let you know that I am a survivor of sexual abuse.”
He shared with those in attendance that he and his wife became born-again Christians, a decision which has led them to delve into Bible study and which has informed everything from their very relationship to his desire to attempt to forgive Poulson for the crimes he perpetrated.
“I’ve been able to be angry at David Poulson, but there’s also…my faith tells me at some point I’m going to have to forgive, for my own personal reasons, forgive this man, and I can tell you I’m not there yet. But I know before I leave this earth I will do that.”
“I just have to have faith in my God, in Jesus, that I’m going to be able to do that.”
Though VanSickle is focusing his energy on healing and helping others, he – like Attorney General Shapiro – also voiced a desire to see Pennsylvania’s legislation change.
“I have to be honest with you…I think all survivors at this point want that opportunity to see their predator in court, and the only ones who can help us with that today is the Senate.”
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