Pat Howard: Erie bishop names defrocked priests

By Pat Howard
March 19, 2017

[with video]

The Erie diocese is among several in Pennsylvania under investigation by a statewide grand jury related to what the diocese in a statement termed "past and present allegations of sexual abuse of children in the diocese."

It was the Catholic Diocese of Erie's equivalent of a legal ad, published to note the dispatching of an unpleasant piece of church business.

The notice, in the March 5 issue of the diocese's Faith Life newspaper, opened with a declarative sentence that set a welcome and overdue precedent. It passed along word that a priest had gotten a pink slip from the pope.

"On Nov. 8, 2016," it read, "Samuel Barton Slocum, formerly a priest of the Diocese of Erie, was dismissed from the clerical state by the Holy Father, Pope Francis."

The notice doesn't detail Slocum's transgressions. But something is known about him because he faced what so many other priests eluded under the cover of the hierarchy — a criminal case and conventional justice.

He wasn't accused of sexual abuse, but rather of continuing inappropriate contact with a 15-year-old boy even after the boy's mother told him to stop. Slocum, who had been pastor of a parish south of Bradford, was convicted in 2012 and sentenced by a McKean County judge to two years of probation. He never returned to active ministry.

The notice results from a policy set by Bishop Lawrence Persico, who has led the Erie diocese since 2012. He told reporter Ed Palattella that the diocese would publicize the defrocking of priests, as well as the names of priests who are removed from clerical duties because of misdeeds such as sexual abuse.

"The faithful have a right to know," Persico told Palattella. "They knew these people as priests and now they are no longer priests. It seemed like the right thing to do."


He also identified three other Erie diocese priests dismissed by the Vatican in 2006: Chester J. Gawronski, Thomas E. Smith and William Presley, all of whom had been named previously in the Erie Times-News investigation of the sexual abuse scandal. Persico said their dismissal, like Slocum's, was requested by his predecessor, Bishop Donald W. Trautman.

Persico also said that in May he requested that the Vatican dismiss another priest. He said that case, which involves a priest from outside Erie County, is nearly complete and that he would release the priest's name when it is.

Slocum's prosecution and the public notice of his removal from the priesthood reflect how much has changed since the scandal broke open nationwide in 2002. By law and church policy, bishops and other Catholic officials are now required to report allegations of child sexual abuse to the police and other civil authorities.

But the number of defrockings and their timing reflect also the crimes and sins of the past. Persico said the four priests he identified were the only ones to be dismissed since the Erie diocese was formed in 1853.

Early in 2004, the diocese said 20 priests had been credibly accused of sexually abusing minors in the 13-county diocese since 1950. The statute of limitations shielded them from justice and most remained priests.

Most of what's known about the scandal in the Erie region came from this newspaper's digging and a limited 2002 review of diocesan records by the late Erie County District Attorney Brad Foulk. But neither reporters nor prosecutor shed much light on the extent to which church officials enabled and covered up for predator priests.

That could change. The Erie diocese is among several in Pennsylvania under investigation by a statewide grand jury related to what the diocese in a statement termed "past and present allegations of sexual abuse of children in the diocese."

Persico was subpoenaed on Sept. 1. Agents with the state's attorney general's office on Nov. 7 served a search warrant at the diocesan offices at St. Mark Center, and Persico told Palattella the diocese continues to provide records for the probe.

Those investigations began in the wake of a sickening grand jury report issued last March on the Catholic Diocese of Altoona/Johnstown that documented hundreds of cases of abuse and implicated two former bishops in the cover-ups. Because most of those crimes are beyond the reach of prosecution, the truth is all the justice that's available.

If the grand jury investigating the Erie diocese issues a similar report of its findings in due course, presumably it will provide a reality check on the hierarchy's depiction of the scope of the scandal here and how it was handled by bishops and other church officials. Such a reckoning would be welcome and ultimately healthy, even if it uncovers wrenching new information.

Also welcome in the meantime is Persico's instinct for greater openness, which is a departure from his predecessor. The bishop's record on these matters is mixed — he opposes giving past victims a path to justice in civil court — but he seems to understand that going forward the price of secrecy is higher than the church and the faithful can afford.



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