A call from an Army chaplain led to the arrest of a priest charged with child sex abuse
By ED PALATTELLA | Erie Times-News, Pa. (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 15, 2018
The phone call was from Fort Hood. It rang in the offices of the Catholic Diocese of Erie in late January.
The call set off a series of events that culminated on Tuesday with the arrest of the Rev. David L. Poulson on charges that he sexually abused two boys from 2002 to 2010.
The Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office charged Poulson based on a presentment from a statewide investigative jury that heard evidence in the case.
But much of that evidence, according to interviews and the grand jury's presentment, came from the Erie diocese. Under the direction of Bishop Lawrence Persico, the diocese started cooperating with law enforcement and investigating on its own as soon as the phone call came in from Texas.
A 2010 diocesan memo about Poulson's contact with boys prompted Attorney General Josh Shapiro to say, on Tuesday, that the Erie diocese engaged in a cover-up of the priest's behavior under the administration of Bishop Donald W. Trautman, who retired in October 2012, when Persico took over. Trautman has defended his handling of Poulson's case, and Persico said he did not know of the memo's existence until January, when he started his own investigation of Poulson.
More information about the memo could come up in the prosecution of Poulson, 64, who is in the Jefferson County Jail on $300,000 bond.
But in terms of the abuse charges against Poulson, even the grand jury's presentment is clear that the diocese provided much of the information that led the attorney general's office to charge Poulson over behavior that investigators said occurred years ago.
The Erie diocese's cooperation with the attorney general's office was "full, complete and immediate," said Mark Rush, of the Pittsburgh law firm of K&L Gates, which handled the diocese's investigation of Poulson and other clergy and laypeople. "The interests of the diocese and the state attorney general's office are aligned."
The phone call
On Jan. 26, a priest in the Erie diocese's chancery office, which assists Persico, received a call from a military chaplain at the U.S. Army base in Fort Hood, Texas. The chaplain, according to the grand jury presentment, "advised that a soldier had disclosed that he had been sexually abused by Poulson when he was a child." The soldier was 23.
The priest who took the call put the information in a memo that he sent to Persico that day. Persico said he immediately contacted Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz because Poulson was pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Cambridge Springs. Schultz confirmed that Persico called and consulted with him.
Persico also said he had the diocese's lawyers with K&L Gates contact the attorney general's office. The office since September 2016 has been investigating how the Erie diocese and five other Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania handled past cases of child abuse.
With the approval of Schultz and the attorney general's office, Persico said, he had K&L Gates conduct its own interview to get information from Poulson without tipping him off about the police investigations. Persico said that, with law enforcement approval, he also held off on forcing Poulson to resign so as to not alert Poulson of the police probe — a situation Schultz confirmed. Persico announced Poulson's resignation on Feb. 13.
The K & L Gates interview with Poulson, conducted on Feb. 9, yielded a trove of information. According to the presentment, Poulson told the lawyers that he owned "a little cabin" near Clarion, in the southeastern part of the 13-county Catholic Diocese of Erie; that Poulson frequently visited the cabin with boys; and that Poulson "was attracted to young men."
The diocese got from Poulson a list of 21 boys with whom the priest said he had spent time and whom the diocese considered "potential victims," Persico said. The diocese sent those names to the attorney general's office, which had taken over the Poulson investigation, and the diocese provided the memo on the soldier's phone call and information on the cabin. The presentment confirms the diocese's cooperation.
Poulson is charged with abusing the soldier and another man when both were boys. Some of the abuse, according to investigators, occurred at Poulson's cabin, located in Jefferson County, east of Clarion County and still in the diocese.
The attorney general's office has had the 2010 memo on Poulson since September 2016, when the Erie diocese provided all its clergy files to the office, which requested them through a grand jury subpoena as part of its ongoing probe of how the Erie diocese and five other dioceses handled cases of child sex abuse.
By all accounts, though, the phone call in January, rather than the memo, spurred the criminal investigation of Poulson.
Persico, at a news conference on Wednesday, said no one told him of the memo when he became bishop in 2012. He said he became aware of it in January and only after he asked K&L Gates to focus on Poulson's file because of the phone call from Texas. The diocese still had copies of its clergy files, and the memo was there, Persico said.
If he had known of the memo sooner, Persico said, he would have called the police about Poulson then.
"I think what we have learned here is that it is better to act than to second guess," he said.
Under mandatory reporting rules, the diocese and other organizations now have no choice but to contact the police and other authorities about suspected child abuse. Cooperation with law enforcement is a required element of the revised church policies and new state laws that went into effect nationwide in response to the clergy abuse crisis that exploded starting with the disclosures in Boston in 2002.
Since he took over as bishop in Erie, Persico has developed new policies that build on those changes, and he has undertaken a program of transparency.
That strategy was on full display on April 6, when Persico released the names of 51 priests and laypeople, living and dead, whom the Erie diocese said had been credibly accused of child sexual abuse and other improper behavior with minors since the 1940s. K&L Gates conducted the investigation that created the list.
The list was unusual in that the Erie diocese released it all, and because the list of laypeople is believed to be the first of its kind a Catholic diocese in the United States has disclosed.
Persico published the list in advance of the release of the report of the statewide investigative grand jury that has been examining dioceses statewide. The report is expected to be issued later this year and is all but certain to scrutinize how the Erie diocese acted in the past.
Persico's stance has been to apologize for the church's past failures, apologize to the victims and to pledge to make sure such abuse doesn't happen again.
"The Diocese of Erie has put a great deal of effort into making sure that every possible action is taken to ensure the safety of children and vulnerable adults," Persico said. "I do not make this statement lightly. I do not take this responsibility lightly."
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