Erie County District Attorney Brad Foulk, left, and Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman, right, walk out of an office at the Erie diocese's headquarters on April 15, 2002, after the two met over clergy abuse cases as the clergy abuse crisis was exploding nationwide. Foulk died in 2009. File Photo, Erie Times-News

Retired Bishop Donald Trautman, who led Catholic Diocese of Erie for two decades, dies at 85

Erie Times-News [Erie PA]

February 26, 2022

By Ed Palattella

[Photo above: Erie County District Attorney Brad Foulk, left, and Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman, right, walk out of an office at the Erie diocese’s headquarters on April 15, 2002, after the two met over clergy abuse cases as the clergy abuse crisis was exploding nationwide. Foulk died in 2009. File Photo, Erie Times-News]

Trautman directed diocese during turbulent time and retired in 2012. He said his “heart and soul” were with the people, though he was heavily criticized for handling of clergy sex abuse crisis.

  • Donald W. Trautman, a Buffalo native, was installed as the ninth bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Erie in July 1990
  • Trautman served as bishop for 22 years, retiring in October 2012 and ending a career marked by hard work and scandal
  • “He gave himself totally to his role as bishop,” said Trautman’s successor as bishop of Erie, Lawrence T. Persico

Retired Bishop Donald W. Trautman, who headed the Catholic Diocese of Erie for 22 years, until October 2012, leading hundreds of thousands of the faithful in northwestern Pennsylvania during a period of immense change and deep scandal, died on Saturday evening.

He was 85 and had been a resident Saint Mary’s of Asbury Ridge in Millcreek Township, serving the diocese as its only bishop emeritus. He died at Saint Mary’s.

The Catholic Diocese of Erie announced Trautman’s death on its website at around 9 p.m. on Saturday. The dates for funeral services were not yet final on Sunday.

Trautman was Erie’s ninth Catholic bishop, with Pope John Paul II naming him to the post on June 2, 1990. Trautman succeeded Bishop Michael Murphy, who retired in 1990 and died in 2007 at 91.

The current bishop, Lawrence T. Persico, succeeded Trautman on Oct. 1, 2012.

At 54 years old, Trautman was installed as bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Erie on July 16, 1990, capping a career he never expected would reach that level.

“What I always wanted to be was a humble country parish priest,” Trautman told the Erie Times-News for a profile published in January 1991, months into his new role. “I never was.”

In his more than two decades as the leader of the Catholic Diocese of Erie’s members, numbering about 195,000 today, Trautman was known as a fierce defender of the clergy who worked hard to support the faithful among declining church membership and fewer priests. But Trautman also was heavily criticized for his handling of the clergy abuse crisis, which exploded nationwide while he was bishop.

Trautman insisted that he acted properly in dealing with abusive priests. But in August 2018, in releasing the groundbreaking statewide grand jury report on the sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church in Pennsylvania, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro singled out Trautman.

In one case, Shapiro said, “the bishop at the time, Donald Trautman, knew all about this abuse and Trautman covered it up.”

The grand jury report itself found that, among other things, Trautman failed “to aggressively pursue” removal of an abusive priest.

Trautman responded to Shapiro sharply, just as he responded to others who questioned how he dealt with abusive priests during his tenure.

“There is simply no pattern or practice of putting the church’s image or a priest’s reputation above the protection of children,” Trautman said in 2018. “The many victims whom I personally counseled will attest to this. I stand on my record.

“Unfortunately, the grand jury report does not fully or accurately discuss my record as bishop for 22 years in dealing with clergy sexual abuse.”

For Trautman, the review of his entire record showed that he was a caring bishop who did all he he could to shepherd his flock.

Trautman once said he put 30,000 miles on his Chrysler a year as he traveled the 13-county Catholic Diocese of Erie, the largest in the state at 10,167 square miles, stretching as far as Erie County to the north, Clearfield County to the south, Mercer County to the west and Potter County to the east.

“My heart and soul are with the people,” Trautman said in an interview with the Erie Times-News in 2009.

In 2011, when he turned 75, the mandatory retirement age for bishops in the Roman Catholic Church, Trautman reflected on his job.

The best part of being Erie’s Catholic bishop, he said, has been “celebrating the sacraments for the people.”

Trautman’s tenure of 22 years as bishop is the third-longest for a bishop in the Catholic Diocese of Erie, according to the diocese. Archbishop John Mark Gannon served for 46 years, until 1966, and Bishop Tobias Mullen served for 31 years, until 1899.

Trautman will be buried in the crypt of St, Peter Cathedral in Erie, the mother church of the Cathoiic Diocese of Erie, where Gannon, Mullen and four other bishops of Erie are also interred, the diocese said.

“He gave himself totally to his role as bishop,” Bishop Persico, in a statement, said of Trautman. “He wore many hats: pastor, administrator, professor, rector, auxiliary bishop and finally, bishop. He had a full life of service to the church. He was deeply committed to the pastoral care of the priests of his diocese as well as the people. I’m sure it was difficult when he had to let go of those responsibilities.

“His final years brought many trials,” Persico said. “There will be those who say he should have done more when it came to clergy sexual abuse. At the same time, there will be those who say he received too much blame.

“As Pope Francis likes to say, we are all sinners. Certainly at this time, we can look at flaws and failures on anyone’s part. It’s easy to look at a life from today’s perspective rather than in its historical context. All of us could have done better, myself included. Knowing Bishop Trautman, he did what he thought was the best he could do for the good of the people and the church.”

Becoming a priest

Donald Walter Trautman was born on June 24, 1936, in Buffalo, a son of the late Edward Trautman, an architect, and Martha Trautman, a homemaker. The two were active at St. Mark Catholic Church in Buffalo, where Donald, the youngest of their three children, was an altar boy.

Donald Trautman’s siblings, Eugene and Carol, preceded him in death. Survivors include a niece, Catherine Trautman, and a nephew, Mark Trautman.

Bishop Trautman said he was called to the priesthood in grade school.

Reviewing his career in the 2009 interview with the Erie Times-News, Trautman said that, as a teen, he announced at breakfast one morning that he’d passed the seminary entrance exam.

He said his parents weren’t thrilled at first. They were concerned about his youth, and wanted him to have more experience in the world.

But Trautman persisted, attending the Our Lady of the Angels Seminary at Niagara University. While a senior there, in 1958, he learned he was being sent to Austria to study at the University of Innsbruck. He tried to get out of the assignment, worried about the lack of connection to his home in Buffalo.

But Buffalo’s Catholic bishop said Trautman had to go if he wanted to be a priest.

“The bishop knew better than I did,” Trautman recalled.

In Austria, Trautman studied under theologian Karl Rahner and liturgist Josef Jungmann, men Trautman said brought about Vatican II. Trautman called Rahner, an influential liberal Catholic theologian, his mentor throughout his years at Innsbruck.

Trautman was ordained a priest at Innsbruck on April 7, 1962.

“When I left after ordination in 1962, I cried like a baby because that seminary, Innsbruck, became my second home,” Trautman recalled in 2009.

Trautman returned to the Diocese of Buffalo, where he was a pastor, chancellor, vicar general and auxiliary bishop.

Trautman was consecrated as a bishop in Buffalo on April 16, 1985. For his motto, he chose “Feed my sheep.”

When he arrived in Erie, his reputation for hard work preceded him.

Trautman was “a legend” in the Buffalo Diocese for his work habits, the Rev. Frederick Leising, a fellow priest in Buffalo, said in the 1991 profile. Leising said Trautman, in his days as chancellor in Buffalo, was often the first to arrive at the office and the last to leave, with days lasting from 6:30 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. He called Trautman “a high-energy person.”

“His life and his work were tied together,” Leising said. “They were one.”

‘Doctrinally conservative’

At his installation ceremony at St. Peter Cathedral in Erie, on July 15, 1990, the day before his official appointment, Trautman set forth his goals, making public a philosophy that he would adhere to over the next 22 years.

The cleric who said his sole aim was to be a parish priest vowed to set aside one day a week to meet with clergy serving under him.

And Trautman, who once said he eschewed labels but called himself “moderate” and admitted to being “doctrinally conservative,” called upon Catholics in the diocese to help adapt the church to the 1990s without forsaking church traditions.

“Our task is to read the signs of our present times,” Trautman said. “The diocese of Erie has great resources in its people. I call upon all of you to build this house of faith.”

Trautman also said he wanted the faithful to help him erect the church as a “superstructure,” that is “traditional yet contemporary in design, adaptable for the needs of this decade and the year 2000.”

Trautman, who could project a stoic and reserved manner and once said he had “a little bit of perfectionism,” throughout his tenure as bishop of Erie made clear that, as much as he said the Catholic Church had to be open to change, it could never vary from bedrock principles. Trautman, among other things, was vocal in his opposition to abortion and to the ordination of women as priests.

“I think we cannot redefine the priesthood,” Trautman said in the 1991 interview, when he also said he believed women will never be ordained in the Catholic Church.

“Two thousand years of church life says ‘no’ to the question of ordaining women,” he said. “Men and women are equal, but they have different callings … from the Lord.”

Speaking of abortion in the 1991 interview, Trautman said, “Our task is to preserve that life in the womb. The church is probably the lone voice in this world on abortion.”

Dealing with decline

Early in his career as bishop of Erie, Trautman recognized that he was presiding over a enterprise that would most likely shrink. In 1991, the Catholic Diocese of Erie had 212 active priests serving 124 parishes. Today, the figures are 102 and 94, respectively, according to the diocese.

Trautman in January 1991 predicted the diocese would need to “cluster” more parishes under cooperating pastors, a trend that continues to this day.

In 2009, as growth continued to evade the Erie diocese, Trautman said bishops don’t want to close or merge parishes or schools but sometimes have to recognize the inevitable.

“A bishop never closes a school,” Trautman said in 2009. “A school closes itself by lack of students or lack of dollars. … What do I gain by closing a school? Nothing. I’m in favor of Catholic education.”

The comments also reflected Trautman’s reputation as a realist in terms of grappling with the church’s future. He made an effort, in many ways, to try to expand the church’s reach in ways that, at one time, might have been considered nontraditional.

Trautman, among other things, started the St. Martin’s Center Bishop’s Breakfast Program to feed the homeless; the Diocesan Bank to provide financial help to parishes; and what was the Catholic chapel in the Millcreek Mall, where he heard confessions on Ash Wednesday.

The chapel drew praise for taking the Catholic Church to the people and scorn for its location and expense — about $2,000 a month in rent. Trautman was undeterred.

“It is costly for us,” he said in 2009, “but I see it as a real form of evangelization and therefore I think worth the dollars.”

Public stances

Trautman throughout his career took on other, more notable controversies.

In 2008, he took then-Mercyhurst College to task for inviting Hillary Rodham Clinton to speak at its main campus during the 2008 presidential race, saying the Catholic school shouldn’t give a platform to someone in favor of abortion rights.

In 2009, Trautman offered similar reasons for decrying the University of Notre Dame’s decision to give President Barack Obama an honorary degree when he spoke at commencement.

And in May 2012, with months left in his time as bishop of Erie, Trautman joined other Roman Catholic bishops nationwide in suing the Obama administration over the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act — a lawsuit that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and that Persico, Trautman’s successor, also championed.

The local suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Erie, focused on the part of the health-care overhaul that dealt with birth control, although Trautman said that was not the only issue.

“We are challenging a federal regulation mandating religious organizations to provide and pay for insurance coverage for services against our consciences,” Trautman said in announcing the filing of the suit. “That would be not just contraceptives, not just sterilization but abortion-inducing drugs. That’s No. 1.

“No. 2, we are challenging the federal government’s right to determine which religious organizations are sufficiently religious to warrant an exemption. So the heart of the matter, the fundamental question, is religious liberty.”

The Erie diocese’s suit become moot when President Donald Trump in 2017 announced new federal regulations on the contraception issue.

The new rules allowed any organization or business, religious or otherwise, to refuse to provide insurance coverage for contraception if the entities object to birth control on religious or moral grounds.

A premature death, and a bobblehead

When speaking about the contraception mandate and other issues, Trautman often displayed a stern, almost humorless manner. He also described himself as a private person.

But he was known to show flashes of a sense of humor.

At the homily at his installation ceremony, in July 1990, Trautman alluded to one of President George Bush’s more famous lines to make a point.

“It may no longer be fashionable to say, `Read my lips,’ so I say, `Read my heart,” Trautman quipped.

In 2007, when Trautman was 70, the Vatican’s official newspaper declared him dead during Easter week. A newspaper staffer apparently confused Trautman with Michael Murphy, the retired Erie bishop, who had died April 2 of that year.

Trautman took the error in stride.

“I told people that there was an early resurrection,” he told the Erie Times-News with a chuckle.

Trautman said he was also surprised by the response of his fellow bishops to his death notice.

“I had several bishops from outside the country e-mail me and one celebrated my repose,” Trautman said. “So I received some extra prayers.”

In 2011, Trautman achieved another milestone. To celebrate his 75th birthday, he joined the ranks of athletes, politicians, celebrities and others to be immortalized in miniature with a bobblehead doll. It was a gift from a priest.

Trautman called the likeness “pretty close.”

Long shadow of abuse crisis

During his retirement, Trautman was embroiled in the same scandal that shadowed him throughout his career as bishop — the clergy abuse crisis and his handling of it.

Though Trautman said he dealt with all the cases properly, he never released the names of the abusive priests — as Bishop Persico, his successor, has done — and he bristled as Attorney General Shapiro, victims and others called him out for what they viewed as an unforgivable lack of diligence and transparency during the scandal.

Trautman remained convinced of his certitude.

In November 2018, with the Pennsylvania grand jury report eliciting shock nationwide, Trautman criticized the grand jury report and the news media at the national meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore.

Trautman at the conference raised questions about the accuracy of “every attorney general report.”

Trautman also questioned the accuracy of a joint investigation by the Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer on bishop misconduct, a report that did not mention him. And he objected to a proposal that would establish a hotline for allegations of bishop misconduct.

“I think this proposal is very dangerous and unjust,” Trautman said in Baltimore. “It calls for reporting … accusations not investigated, not substantiated, not proven. That’s unjust.”

Bishop Persico, who also attended the conference, embraced the same proposals and said Trautman was expressing his own opinions.

“I wouldn’t have gone down that road, but then that’s Bishop Trautman,” Persico said at the time.

In an interview after the conference, Trautman said he would make the same comments again, noting that some bishops applauded his remarks.

“Why wouldn’t I speak?” Trautman said in the interview. “I have been a member of the conference since 1985. I take an active interest in the church. I will continue to speak when I think errors occur.”

Gannon University in November 2012 named one of its buildings, 306 W. 6th St. in Erie, the Trautman House, after Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman, who retired in October 2012 and had been the chairman of the board at Gannon, a Roman Catholic institution. The Gannon board in September 2018 renamed the building the Catholic House in response to the August 2018 statewide grand jury report over the clergy abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The report criticized Trautman's handling of an abuse case as bishop. Christopher Millette, File Photo, Erie Times-News
Gannon University in November 2012 named one of its buildings, 306 W. 6th St. in Erie, the Trautman House, after Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman, who retired in October 2012 and had been the chairman of the board at Gannon, a Roman Catholic institution. The Gannon board in September 2018 renamed the building the Catholic House in response to the August 2018 statewide grand jury report over the clergy abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The report criticized Trautman’s handling of an abuse case as bishop. Christopher Millette, File Photo, Erie Times-News

Stripped of an honor

Trautman’s stance on the crisis led to public humiliation. In September 2018, in response to the grand jury report, Gannon University’s board of trustees erased Trautman’s name from the Roman Catholic school’s campus in downtown Erie.

The board removed Trautman’s name from a house on campus, revoked an honorary degree that Gannon had bestowed upon him and canceled an annual lecture series that Gannon had been holding in his name.

To mark Trautman’s tenure as bishop, Gannon in November 2012 had renamed the building, at 306 W. Sixth St., the Bishop Donald W. Trautman House in his honor.

The house, which had been called the Gannon University Catholic House, includes six apartments that house Gannon University students who want to focus their living and learning on the Catholic faith. In September 2018, Gannon reinstated the original name of Catholic House and replaced the sign on the house.

The move incensed Trautman, who had served a chairman of the Gannon board when he was bishop.

“The action of the board of trustees of Gannon University is shameful and shocking,” Trautman said at the time. “The chair of the board, Bishop Persico, and the board never invited me to appear before the board to answer any questions about my handling of predator priests.”

Gannon, in a further rebuke to Trautman, said its decision was made in accordance with “our Catholic tradition,” which the university said “compels us to give voice to victims and to provide for the protection of children and vulnerable adults.”

Steering the ‘ship of St. Peter’

Trautman spent his later years defending himself against more claims that he had mishandled abuse cases. Though the clergy abuse crisis in many ways defined his time as the Catholic Bishop of Erie, he saw his tenure as one in which he served the people and God.

“I have also been a shepherd for 22 years here during probably turbulent times in the life of the church, but I’m grateful to the Lord that he gave me the opportunity to steer the ship of Peter and to try to lead God’s people,” Trautman said in April 2012, when he was honored with a Mass of Thanksgiving marking his 50 years of priesthood.

The service was at St. Peter Cathedral, where Trautman had been installed as bishop in July 1990.

Trautman, then 75, said he would like to be remembered as someone “who preached God’s word and was faithful to God’s word.”

“My greatest chore is always celebrating the Eucharist for my people,” Trautman said. “There are many wonderful memories, but I want to be remembered for keeping God’s family together.”

Contact Ed Palattella at Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.

Funeral arrangements

As of Sunday morning, the Catholic Diocese of Erie had yet to make final the dates for Bishop Trautman’s funeral services. The diocese released preliiminary arrangements.

  • A memorial Mass, open to the public, will be held at Our Lady of Peace Church in Millcreek Township the night before the Mass of Christian Burial at St. Peter Cathedral in Erie.
  • Due to COVID-19 restrictions and to renovations at the cathedral guests at the funeral Mass will be by invitation only. Livestreams of both Masses will be made available.
  • As arrangements are finalized, information will be available at
  • Interment will be in the crypt of St. Peter Cathedral.
  • Brugger Funeral Homes & Crematory in Erie is handling arrangements.
  • Memorials may be made to the Bishop Donald W. Trautman Feed My Sheep Endowment, supporting youth and persons suffering from spiritual and material poverty, via the Catholic Foundation of Northwest Pennsylvania, or to the Bishop’s Breakfast Program via  Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Erie.