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  DA Drops Charges against Priest

By Ed Palattella
Erie Times-News (PA)
February 6, 2001

Erie County District Attorney Brad Foulk said Tuesday he will withdraw felony child pornography charges against a Roman Catholic priest because of problems with the way the state police handled the original computer evidence.

Foulk said investigators failed to make a duplicate of the contents of a computer hard drive following the March 1999 arrest of the Rev. Robert Francis Bower, who at the time was pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Cambridge Springs. He was accused of downloading the pornography from e-mails onto his personal computer between June 1996 and December 1998.

"The long and short of it is, the evidence we need to proceed to trial has been irretrievably lost," Foulk said.

Foulk said the state police have implemented new procedures to prevent similar problems in the future. A state police spokesman said the police have new software to use in computer investigations to make "mirror images" of the evidence.

"This is cutting-edge technology," said Cpl. Mark Zaleski, of Troop E in Lawrence Park, which investigated the Bower case.

Bower, 68, was placed on leave from the Diocese of Erie following his arrest, but he is still allowed to say Mass. Sometime after his arrest, Bower "underwent counseling and was given a positive evaluation, which cleared him for limited ministry in the diocese," diocesan officials said in a statement Tuesday.

"We welcome the news that charges against Father Bower have been dropped," said the statement from spokesman Gary Loncki.

Bower's lawyer, Dennis Kuftic, said he believes the technical problems were not the only difficulties the District Attorney's Office faced in the case. He said the original evidence would have proven that Bower was innocent and never intended to obtain the pornographic items that were attached to the e-mails.

Kuftic said Bower received the e-mails unsolicited. He said the images, although Bower deleted them, remained in the computer's hard drive - a common procedure meant to guard against accidental deletion. Kuftic said Bower never tried to access those deleted items.

Kuftic disputed the allegations that Bower downloaded pornography from the Internet. He said Bower only possessed them on his computer.

"This is the type of incident that can happen to anyone who has a computer and doesn't know what they are doing," Kuftic said. "These were e-mails sent to him; we all know what e-mail is. This was sent to him, he deleted it as best he could and he never attempted to access it again."

'Our hands were tied'

Foulk said the lack of a duplicate of the hard drive contents meant that the prosecution lacked the original, uncorrupted evidence to put before a jury at trial. He said the jurors would not be able to determine what originally was on Bower's computer and how it got there. By duplicating the contents of the hard drive and loading the information onto another computer, Foulk said, the police could have examined that information without altering the original evidence.

"As a result of the manner in which it was conducted," Foulk said of the police's preliminary investigation, "it has been determined by this office - after consulting with the FBI and their crime lab - that we are unable to determine when these items were deleted, how they were deleted and how they were received."

Foulk acknowledged that police alleged that Bower, in an interview, admitted to downloading the pornography. Foulk said the prosecution still needed the evidence to corroborate Bower's statements.

"That is the main part of the case," Foulk said of the computer hard drive. "Without the physical evidence to bring in the courtroom, our hands were tied."

Foulk said the evidentiary concern was the only reason he decided to withdraw the charges. "No decision in our office has ever been based on what you do or who you are," Foulk said. "Every defendant, as far as we're concerned, will be treated equally."

Foulk, who took office in January 2000, inherited the Bower case. He and other prosecutors in his office for the past year talked with police and the FBI in evaluating the case.

State police charged Bower on March 10, 1999, with three counts of possession of child pornography as a third-degree felony. The police in each count alleged that Bower possessed the child pornography on his computer at a residence in the 300 block of Darrow Road, Edinboro.

Pennsylvania law does not prohibit the viewing of child pornography but outlaws the possession of it. Each of the three possession counts against Bower covered a different time frame in which, police said, Bower possessed the pornography on his computer. Those time frames are June 21 through Dec. 31, 1996, Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 1997, and Jan. 1 through Dec. 31, 1998.

The police alleged that Bower knowingly downloaded the items. The arrest warrant said Bower told the investigating officer, "'I was 60 and feeling my oats,' alluding to sexual gratification as the purpose of obtaining and possessing the materials." The warrant also said that Bower in the police interview "admitted to downloading the images from the Internet and admitted to knowing they were illegal."

Bower, who still lives in a private residence on Darrow Road, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Kuftic, his lawyer, said Bower answered the police questions the way he did because the questions confused him.

Kuftic said Bower told him, "'They asked me if I downloaded this stuff, I told them no, other people sent this stuff to me.'

"There was an element of confusion here," Kuftic said. "The police thought one thing and the father said another. He was basically telling them what they wanted to hear."

Kuftic said Bower never knew who sent him the e-mails. Asked why Bower received the e-mails, Kuftic said: "He got into one of those chat rooms. He started talking to some people. He started talking to the wrong people."

The diocese's position

Bower at the time of his arrest had been at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, 165 Beach Ave., Cambridge Springs, since 1992. He has been out of prison since his arrest. District Justice Denise Stuck-Lewis of Edinboro released him on a recognizance bond at his arraignment in March 1999. Bower waived his right to a preliminary hearing, automatically sending the case to Common Pleas Court.

At the time of Bower's arrest, Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman said Bower "has been placed on administrative leave until the legal charges are fully disposed of." The diocese also replaced Bower as pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Church.

The statement the diocese issued Tuesday said Bower later occasionally celebrated Mass at a parish in Elk County. The full statement, from Loncki, reads:

"We welcome the news that charges against Father Bower have been dropped. When he was charged, Father Bower, according to diocesan policy, was removed from his ministerial assignment pending the outcome of legal proceedings. A short time later, Monsignor Lawrence Speice was appointed pastor of St. Anthony Parish, Cambridge Springs, where Father Bower had been pastor.

"Father Bower underwent counseling and was given a positive evaluation, which cleared him for limited ministry in the diocese. Only recently, although not an official assignment, he occasionally celebrated Mass as needed at St. Anne parish, Wilcox, Elk County. That was the extent of his ministry.

"Father Bower has been living in a private residence in Edinboro. In time, the diocese will determine his future in ministry."

The new procedures

State police started investigating Bower in February 1999, according to the arrest warrant. They got involved after the manager of a computer store in Millcreek Township told officers that he was working on a computer brought in by Bower and had discovered child pornography on the hard drive, the warrant said. The warrant does not specify the number of images but states that most of them were of boys.

Bower's lawyer, Kuftic, at the time said Bower wanted his computer repaired because it "was acting sluggishly."

State police later examined the contents of the hard drive - without making a duplicate. Kuftic said he believes the state police still have the hard drive.

"I have discussed the problem with the state police," Foulk said, "and since we are dealing more and more with computer crimes, we are taking steps to ensure that this doesn't happen again."

He said state police computer labs or the FBI will examine computer evidence in future cases under his office's jurisdiction.

"The manner in which computers have to be checked for evidence is a very sophisticated process. If there is one misstep, it could cause problems," Foulk said.

Zaleski, the spokesman for Troop E, said the police have new software to duplicate the contents of a hard drive. He said the duplicate information is copied on to a compact disc, creating a "mirror image." Zaleski said the CD is then loaded into another computer, allowing an examination of the duplicate information without disturbing the contents on the original hard drive.

"We didn't have this software at the time this case came about," Zaleski said of the Bower investigation. "This is cutting-edge technology. It is new to the state police."

 
 

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