‘Impossible contradiction’ besets Erie-area priest case
By Ed Palattella And Madeleine O’neill
January 20, 2019
Parishioners, others reveal shock, dismay in letters of support for Rev. David Poulson, sentenced to up to 14 years in state prison.
Faith was at the center of the Rev. David L. Poulson’s sentencing hearing for sexually abusing two boys while in ministry in the Catholic Diocese of Erie.
The judge told Poulson he “weaponized” the boys’ faith and abused his authority as a priest when he molested them.
Poulson, 65, said at his sentencing earlier in January that he prays for the victims every day and offers penance for his actions.
It was Poulson’s expressions of faith and reverence over his 39-year career as a cleric that made the crimes so shocking in the traditional Catholic communities he served in northwestern Pennsylvania.
A series of character letters submitted by the defense at the sentencing highlight Poulson’s double life — and the difficult questions the faithful must confront when a spiritual leader is revealed as a predator.
A prison sentence was the final step in Poulson’s fall from grace. He received two and a half to 14 years in state prison from Jefferson County Judge John H. Foradora at the sentencing on Jan. 11.
The defense filed the 19 character letters, sent by Poulson’s friends and former parishioners, with a sentencing memorandum that asked Foradora to issue a much shorter sentence. The Erie Times-News received a copy of the sentencing memorandum, which was filed publicly at the Jefferson County Courthouse, last week.
“We have been crushed by what has come to light since February,” wrote one former parishioner, who said Poulson baptized his children.
“I speak not only for myself and for my children but also for friends as well as the other clergy that we know, when I say that to accept such criminal behavior could be possible for a person that we have known, respected and loved for so many years still seems like an impossible contradiction.”
The parishioners’ reactions of dismay were unsurprising to Bob Hoatson, a former Roman Catholic priest who founded Road to Recovery, based in New Jersey, to help victims of clergy sexual abuse. He said he is also a clergy abuse victim.
“Catholics often become so engrossed in the clerical collar that they forget that behind that collar is a person, and the person is often very flawed,” Hoatson said.
Hoatson did not attend Poulson’s sentencing, but has been following developments in the 13-county Catholic Diocese of Erie since the Pennsylvania attorney general’s Aug. 14 release of the grand jury report on sexual abuse in six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania, including the Erie diocese. Hoatson met with abuse victims in Erie with Attorney General Josh Shapiro in October.
“It is absolutely the same in most circumstances,” Hoatson said of how parishioners respond to learning that a trusted priest is guilty of abuse or other crimes.
“It is unimaginable, but that is what they do,” Hoatson said. “For some reason, Catholics cannot differentiate the man Poulson from the priest Poulson.”
‘In God’s hands’
Poulson formed a reputation as a traditional cleric and a reverent student of theology.
“A Conservative Traditional Priest and proud of it,” is how one letter-writer described him to the judge.
Poulson studied in Rome as a young man and served as a deacon in St. Peter’s Basilica for Pope John Paul II on Easter in 1979, his lawyer wrote in the sentencing memorandum.
As his career progressed in the Erie diocese, Poulson became involved in more specialized Catholic practices. He was the bishop’s delegate for Mass in the Extraordinary Form, or the Latin Mass; diocesan liaison to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal; and diocesan chaplain for the World Apostolate of Fatima.
Poulson also became known for offering healing prayers over people with physical ailments. And parishioners called upon Poulson to remove “disturbances in their homes or businesses” through blessings and prayers, his lawyer wrote.
One letter, written by an Erie woman who said Poulson had been her “spiritual director” for 20 years, described an occasion when Poulson was called upon to halt “preternatural situations” at an area business, including “chairs being knocked over and water in the water cooler ‘boiling.’”
The incidents stopped after Poulson “performed a thorough blessing of the building,” she wrote.
The activities detailed in the letter appear to be akin to exorcisms. The Roman Catholic Church can designate priests as exorcists under canon law.
However, “the Diocese of Erie does not make the names of priests who are appointed exorcists public,” diocesan spokeswoman Anne-Marie Welsh said. “Due to the sensitive nature of the rite, this remains a confidential ministry.”
The character letters in Poulson’s case came from some of his former parishioners at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Cambridge Springs and the St. Michael Church in Fryburg, Clarion County, where Poulson was assigned before he was made pastor at St. Anthony in 2010.
Poulson pleaded guilty to molesting the two boys between 2002 and 2010, during these same assignments. He was charged in May based on a presentment from the same grand jury that went on to issue its explosive 884-page report in August.
The grand jury charged that Poulson molested the boys in separate incidents at Poulson’s hunting cabin in Jefferson County. He was also charged with abusing one of the two victims in the rectories at St. Anthony and St. Michael Church.
The Attorney General’s Office, which prosecuted Poulson, accused him of having the victim to go confession after the abuse.
The letters show Poulson’s supporters struggling to reconcile the priest they thought they knew with the abuser who pleaded guilty to corruption of minors and endangering the welfare of children.
“It threw me when he pled guilty, so I’m placing the whole matter in God’s hands,” one woman wrote.
Another woman, who lives as a hermitess at the St. Thomas More House of Prayer in Cranberry, wrote that she believed Poulson’s actions came from weakness rather than malice. But she also took issue with “horrific and unfair exposure” of the case by the news media and wrote that Poulson had been “the victim of fake news.”
“I have to admit that my husband and I feel hurt by David’s actions,” a Saegertown woman wrote. “We really cared about him ... we still do.”
Poulson was one of only two priests in Pennsylvania who faced charges based on the grand jury’s findings, which listed allegations against 301 “predator priests” accused of abusing more than 1,000 victims dating to the 1940s. The allegations against most of the other priests named in the grand jury report are beyond the criminal statute of limitations, and a number of the accused priests have died.
Poulson was removed from active ministry and forced to resign as a priest in February in light of the criminal investigation. The diocese started investigating claims against Poulson in January 2018, under Erie Bishop Lawrence Persico’s direction, and provided evidence to the Attorney General’s Office that helped lead to the grand jury’s presentment against Poulson.
As a condition of his guilty plea, Poulson was required to request formal removal from the priesthood. That process has begun, the Erie diocese has said.
Poulson’s removal from St. Anthony came as a shock to the parishioners who wrote letters, some of whom continued to doubt the charges even after Poulson pleaded guilty.
“We his friends know that whether Fr. Poulson is an innocent victim of false accusations and political motives in an anti-Catholic climate, guilty of a crime, or something in between, he willingly accepts the consequences and offers constant prayer for all involved,” wrote one man, who knew Poulson during his time as a chaplain at Gannon University, where he served from 1982 to 1997.
Several letter-writers suggested that the loss of the priesthood should be enough of a penalty for Poulson. His lawyers wrote that he expressed a desire to become a priest at a young age and “would frequently attend daily mass before school without urging” as a child.
“I feel that the ministry of a mighty man of God has been derailed,” an Erie woman wrote in one letter. Several mourned the loss of a pastor who brought back traditions they had thought to be lost, such as Latin Masses.
Only a few offered sympathy for the victims in their letters.
“I feel great sympathy for any young person who endures such a trauma,” a Centerville woman wrote.
At Poulson’s sentencing hearing in Jefferson County, the victims were in greater focus. Both victims submitted written statements that the prosecution read in court.
“Because of this man’s actions, I’ve suffered for many years,” one victim wrote. “I trusted him and was betrayed.”
Foradora, the sentencing judge, commented on the letters in support of Poulson. Foradora also commented on the two victims.
“No one in this world is all good or all bad,” Foradora said. “Those letters show that you did a lot of good for a lot of people, but these two individuals will struggle for the remainder of their life.”