Ex-erie Diocese Priest Gets up to 14 Years for Abuse
By Madeleine O’Neill
January 11, 2019
“You used your position as a man of the cloth to deceive young boys,” victim says of Rev. David Poulson, sentenced in Jefferson County Court.
BROOKVILLE — A Pennsylvania grand jury found that the Rev. David L. Poulson made one of his child victims go to confession after he sexually abused the boy.
In a Jefferson County courtroom Friday, Poulson offered a confession of his own.
“I am sorry for the actions that I committed,” Poulson, 65, said. “They were both criminal and sinful.”
Poulson received two and a half to 14 years in state prison from Jefferson County President Judge John H. Foradora for molesting two boys while a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Erie. The sentence was the maximum possible for the charges under the law.
“These were children who trusted you,” Foradora told Poulson. “These were faithful parents who thought their children would be safe with a priest.”
Foradora quoted from Mark 10:13-16, in which Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs to “the little children.” Foradora also quoted from the Gospel verses in which Jesus said that anyone who would cause a child to stumble would be better off having a millstone hung around their neck and being drowned in the sea.
Foradora also criticized retired Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman, whom the judge said left Poulson in ministry after concerns about Poulson were raised in 2010.
“I just can’t figure out how anyone in a position of authority would have done that,” Foradora said. “The public was potentially at risk for eight years because of the bishop’s actions.”
Trautman has defended his handling of the Poulson case. He said he investigated claims against Poulson but could not corroborate them based on the information available to him. Trautman has also said the claims he investigated involved no allegations of physical abuse or contact with a minor.
Poulson was forced to resign as a priest in February under Bishop Lawrence Persico, who took over as bishop of the 13-county diocese in October 2012.
Poulson’s victims spoke up against him in court through victim-impact statements that a prosecutor read.
“You used your position as a man of the cloth to deceive young boys,” one victim said in his statement. “I trusted you and you tried to take advantage of that trust.”
The other victim, Joseph Schillinger, who said in his statement that he wanted his name read in court, said the abuse “cost me my career and marriage.” He said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and that he trusted Poulson “and was betrayed.”
“To David Poulson,” Schillinger said in the statement, “I forgive you and may God have mercy on you.”
Poulson said in court: “I know that there’s nothing I can do that will undo the harm that I caused them, but I apologize to them and I’m sorry for what I did.”
“I was the responsible adult,” he also said. “I knew better. I should have exercised self-restraint.”
He also spoke of the victims.
“I don’t blame anybody else. I take all the responsibility,” he said. “I hope that doing so along with my prayers and penance will help them find healing.”
Poulson was taken into custody in the courtroom after his sentencing. He has been free since he posted 10 percent of $300,000 bond in May.
He pleaded guilty in October to one count each of corruption of minors and endangering the welfare of children, both third-degree felonies, for molesting the two boys in 2002 and 2010.
“He took something that was sacred and he made it sinister,” said the prosecutor, Senior Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dye. “He took something divine and made it diabolical.”
The defense asked for probation. One of Poulson’s lawyers, Casey White, of Pittsburgh, said the defense had received 20 letters, including from Poulson’s former parishioners, in support of Poulson.
White asked Foradora to craft an individualized sentence for Poulson.
“This is not punishment for any perceived cover-up by the Catholic Church,” White said. After the sentencing, White said he was “disappointed” by the prison term.
Poulson has also begun the process of formal removal from the priesthood, according to the Catholic Diocese of Erie. Poulson’s plea agreement with prosecutors required him to request the removal.
Attorney general weighs in
Attorney General Josh Shapiro praised the sentence at a news conference after the hearing.
“The stiff sentence imposed today on Poulson sends another very clear message here in Jefferson County, across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and indeed, I believe people across this country are listening: that the era of institutional cover-ups has ended.”
Poulson was charged in May based on a presentment from the statewide grand jury that went on to issue scathing findings about sexual abuse in six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, including the Catholic Diocese of Erie. Poulson was initially charged with eight counts, but six charges were withdrawn as part of his plea agreement with prosecutors.
Poulson was accused of abusing the two boys in separate incidents at Poulson’s hunting cabin in Jefferson County. He was also charged with molesting one of the two victims in the rectories at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Cambridge Springs and the St. Michael Church in Fryburg, Clarion County, where Poulson was assigned as pastor before he was pastor at St. Anthony.
Poulson was prosecuted in Jefferson County for charges related to all of the incidents.
Jim VanSickle, who has said Poulson abused him while he was a student at Bradford Central Christian High School from 1979 to 1982, was present for the sentencing and said the prison term was appropriate.
“I’m very pleased that an appropriate sentence was given,” VanSickle said. “For a survivor, I don’t think there’s ever enough time.”
VanSickle is not one of the two victims Poulson pleaded guilty to abusing. VanSickle’s allegations involve abuse for which the statute of limitations has passed.
He said his life had been changed in many of the same ways the two victims described in their court statements.
Bishop: ‘Sad moment’
Persico, the Erie bishop, has said that Poulson was forced to resign as a priest in February in light of the criminal investigation. Persico also removed Poulson from active ministry.
Poulson was pastor of St. Anthony at the time of his resignation.
“This is a very sad moment for everyone who has been impacted by the crimes committed by Father David Poulson,” Persico said in a statement after the sentencing. “It’s my hope that the events of this day will bring a measure of healing to victims.
“As part of his plea, Father Poulson agreed to seek laicization, meaning he will no longer be a member of the clergy. He has made the request, and the diocese has sent the necessary documents to the Vatican.
“My prayers are with the victims, with the parish communities where David served and with all those who are experiencing the pain of this situation.”
The Catholic Diocese of Erie started investigating claims against Poulson in January 2018, under Persico’s direction. Evidence the diocese provided to the Attorney General’s Office helped lead to the presentment against Poulson.
Shapiro, the attorney general, was critical of Trautman in a statement after the sentencing. He has said evidence showed Trautman knew of allegations against Poulson in 2010 but allowed him to remain in ministry.
“For more than seven years, the diocese allowed Poulson to remain in ministry, even though they knew he was a predator,” Shapiro said.
The grand jury report named Poulson as one of 41 priests in the Catholic Diocese of Erie accused of sexually abusing minors. The 41 priests are among the 301 “predator priests” the grand jury said abused more than 1,000 minors in six Roman Catholic dioceses since the 1940s. In addition to Erie, the dioceses are in Allentown, Harrisburg, Greensburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton.
Poulson is one of two Catholic priests in Pennsylvania charged as a result of the grand jury investigation. The other priest, the Rev. John T. Sweeney, 76, of the Catholic Diocese of Greensburg, pleaded guilty in July to a misdemeanor charge of indecent assault of a minor for an incident that happened in the early 1990s. He received 11? months to five years in prison at his sentencing in December.
The allegations against most of the other priests named in the grand jury report are beyond the criminal statute of limitations. A number of the accused priests have died.