AG Shapiro announces arrest of Erie priest on charges of sexual abuse

By Peter Smith
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
May 08, 2018

[with video]

ERIE, Pa. — Eight years ago, the Rev. David L. Poul­son ad­mit­ted to his bishop that he was aroused by a boy, had sent sex-themed texts to mi­nors and was spend­ing time alone with them in vi­o­la­tion of di­oc­e­san rules, ac­cord­ing to a grand jury re­port ac­com­pa­ny­ing the Roman Cath­o­lic priest’s ar­rest Tues­day.

The now-re­tired Bishop Don­ald Traut­man “ad­mon­ished” Father Poul­son and told him to “cease and de­sist” from such be­hav­ior, ac­cord­ing to an in­ter­nal church memo cited by the grand jury.

Bishop Traut­man, how­ever, kept Father Poul­son in par­ish min­is­try, where he stayed un­til this year. Bishop Law­rence Per­sico, cur­rent head of the 13-county Erie di­o­cese, said nei­ther his pre­de­ces­sor nor any­one else told him of any con­cerns about the priest af­ter he took of­fice in 2012.

The grand jury — which has been in­ves­ti­gat­ing sex­ual abuse in six Roman Cath­o­lic di­o­ceses across Penn­syl­va­nia — ob­tained the memo from the Erie di­o­cese more than a year ago.

After the di­o­cese re­ceived and passed on new ev­i­dence to in­ves­ti­ga­tors early this year, Father Poul­son was in­dicted on mul­ti­ple charges of sex­ual abuse of two boys.

Father Poul­son was ar­rested in Oil City at his mother’s home and ar­raigned in Jef­fer­son County Dis­trict Court. Bail was set at $300,000 cash, Penn­syl­va­nia At­tor­ney Gen­eral Josh Sha­piro an­nounced Tues­day at a press con­fer­ence at the Erie County Court­house.

Mr. Sha­piro said one al­leged vic­tim re­ported that the abuse oc­curred be­tween 2002 and 2010 at rec­to­ries and at a re­mote cabin in Jef­fer­son County.

The boy was even forced to con­fess the abuse at con­fes­sion to Father Poul­son, the in­dict­ment said. Father Poul­son thus “wea­p­on­ized” his faith to prey on his vic­tim, Mr. Sha­piro said.

The priest re­mained in ac­tive par­ish min­is­try un­til early this year, when Bishop Per­sico re­moved him and the priest re­signed as pas­tor of St. An­thony of Padua Par­ish in Cam­bridge Springs, Craw­ford County.

Mr. Sha­piro re­fused to com­ment when asked whether the grand jury had con­sid­ered charges against Bishop Traut­man, who re­tired in 2012.

There is prece­dent for such cases. Last week in Blair County, two Fran­cis­can su­per­vi­sors of an abu­sive friar were con­victed of a sin­gle count each of en­dan­ger­ing the wel­fare of chil­dren. That case emerged out of a pre­vi­ous grand jury.

The cur­rent ar­rest, and the ar­rest last year of a Greens­burg priest await­ing trial, have emerged from the 40th state­wide grand jury. Mr. Sha­piro of­fered no hints on fur­ther grand jury ac­tions.

The Dio­cese of Erie said there would be no com­ment from Bishop Traut­man, whose 2010 con­ver­sa­tion with Father Poul­son was trig­gered by a com­plaint about the priest’s be­hav­ior around a mi­nor.

The full 2010 memo was not re­leased Tues­day. While Father Poul­son did not ex­plic­itly ad­mit to abuse, the ex­cerpts in­di­cate warn­ing signs that should have been well-known to Cath­o­lic bish­ops by 2010, eight years af­ter pledg­ing to re­move any priest for even one in­ci­dent of abuse.

In a state­ment, Bishop Per­sico lamented the al­leged crimes and said the di­o­cese had co­op­er­ated ex­ten­sively with the grand jury.

“Learn­ing the de­tails of the be­hav­ior with which Father Poul­son has been charged has been ex­tremely up­set­ting,” Bishop Per­sico said. “The vic­tims in­volved have en­dured great suf­fer­ing, and I know words can­not ade­quately ex­press my sor­row in the face of such dev­as­ta­tion.”

Bishop Per­sico said he didn’t know of the 2010 Traut­man memo un­til af­ter the grand jury in 2016 sub­poe­naed church doc­u­ments re­lated to abuse from Erie and five other di­o­ceses. The Erie di­o­cese’s le­gal team re­viewed the doc­u­ments and flagged the memo as a sign of pos­si­ble “groom­ing,” or ac­tiv­i­ties in which a sex­ual pred­a­tor uses fa­vors to gain a vic­tim’s trust.

Bishop Per­sico said the di­o­cese pro­vided the ma­terial to the grand jury and un­suc­cess­fully at­tempted to con­tact the mi­nor iden­ti­fied in the 2010 memo (who was not one of the two al­leged vic­tims in the in­dict­ment).

The break in the case came in Jan­u­ary, when a Roman Cath­o­lic chap­lain at Fort Hood, Texas, called the di­o­cese to say a young sol­dier re­ported be­ing re­peat­edly sex­u­ally abused by Father Poul­son.

The di­o­cese then con­fronted and sus­pended Father Poul­son and pro­vided his state­ment and other ev­i­dence to the grand jury, in­clud­ing names of other po­ten­tial wit­nesses, Bishop Per­sico said.

Father Poul­son faces three fel­ony and five mis­de­meanor charges, in­clud­ing three counts of in­de­cent as­sault, two each of cor­rup­tion of mi­nors and en­dan­ger­ing the wel­fare of chil­dren and one of crim­i­nal at­tempt at in­de­cent as­sault.

The first al­leged vic­tim was abused be­tween ages 8 and 16, ac­cord­ing to the in­dict­ment. The al­leged vic­tim’s fam­ily had re­cently moved to Penn­syl­va­nia, and his par­ents be­lieved the lo­cal priest would be a “good role model,” the in­dict­ment said.

The in­dict­ment de­scribes in ex­plicit de­tail how the priest al­leg­edly as­saulted the boy in ac­tions in­clud­ing kiss­ing, grop­ing and mas­tur­ba­tion on a bi­weekly ba­sis.

A sec­ond al­leged vic­tim said he was mo­lested by Father Poul­son as a teen from 2003 to 2006.

Nine other men re­ported to the grand jury that as far back as 1979, Father Poul­son would flirt and “wres­tle” with them and pro­vide them gifts and al­co­hol.

Father Poul­son, 64, has been a priest since 1979 and worked in par­ishes in Brad­ford, Clearfield, Fry­burg and Cam­bridge Springs. He also worked at Brad­ford Cen­tral Chris­tian High School, Gan­non Univer­sity in Erie and Clar­ion Univer­sity.

The re­mote cabin where Father Poul­son al­leg­edly took the boys is co-owned by a state po­lice ser­geant, Mark Bettwy, ac­cord­ing to the in­dict­ment.

Mr. Bettwy tes­ti­fied that he was aware that Father Poul­son vis­ited the cabin with boys and had once told him he wanted "prop­erty own­er­ship re­lin­quished to the Bettwy fam­ily in the event that he [Poul­son] was ever ac­cused of mo­lest­ing al­tar boys,” ac­cord­ing to the in­dict­ment.

Mr. Sha­piro asked any­one who has been abused by clergy to call a hot­line at 888-538-8541. He said to vic­tims: “We hear you, we are lis­ten­ing, and I be­lieve you. We’re tak­ing ac­tion against your abus­ers.”


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