AG Shapiro announces arrest of Erie priest on charges of sexual abuse
By Peter Smith
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
May 08, 2018
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.”