Our view: Erie bishops face pastoral challenge
May 13, 2018
The Rev. David L. Poulson, a Catholic Diocese of Erie priest, was arrested Tuesday on charges he sexually abused two boys in three counties between 2002 and 2010.
Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Poulson not only assaulted one of the victims in two church rectories, but also defiled the sacrament of reconciliation by making that boy “confess” the sexual abuse to Poulson, his abuser.
Worse, Shapiro asserted diocesan leaders knew of Poulson’s predatory behaviors eight years ago, but did not alert law enforcement or parishioners or remove him from ministry.
Shapiro said a May 2010 diocesan memo showed that after church officials received a complaint about Poulson’s behavior with minors, Poulson admitted to then-Erie Bishop Donald W. Trautman that his text messages with boys were “suggestive to sexual advances” and that he had been sexually aroused while tutoring a boy. Trautman, Shapiro said, admonished Poulson to stop and returned him to ministry.
Shapiro said the statewide grand jury investigating the Erie diocese heard testimony about Poulson from nine other young men who described common “grooming behaviors” meant to erode child victims’ defenses. Witnesses said Poulson wrestled with them, plied them with alcohol and entertained them at a remote cabin in Jefferson County.
The crimes charged against Poulson carry power to inflict lasting damage on a victim’s identity and faith, which is why news of them poses such a stark pastoral challenge to those on whose watch they occur.
Trautman in a written statement countered Shapiro, saying he received fourth-hand complaint about Poulson’s contact with a young adult man and reached out to the man but got no response. The retired bishop remained troublingly silent with regard to the most important piece of Shapiro’s claim — the admissions Poulson made to Trautman regarding minors. Grooming behavior might not have been easily detectable decades ago, but in 2010?
Trautman ended his written statement with a quote from St. Boniface: “The truth can be assaulted, but never defeated.” It was a puzzling choice given this conversation is happening as the church comes to terms with truths it hid for so long.
Bishop Lawrence Persico stood in a remarkable news conference and answered unscripted, gritty questions about what was known when. He apologized to victims and pledged vigilance and support. He did not minimize the harm. The disappointed faithful he urged to put trust in God, not people.
We do not know yet if the Erie diocese has the whole truth. Shapiro’s statewide grand jury report is not yet out. Maybe we are through the worst of it. If not, Persico’s humble, open brand of leadership seems to be putting the faith community on a solid path to survive that journey intact.