21 June 2017
David Harper was 10 years old when a Catholic priest and family friend allegedly woke him in the middle of the night in a rectory bedroom and raped him.
For nearly two decades, Harper, now 35, told no one about what allegedly happened on his trip with Robert “Father Bob” Poandl to Spencer, West Virginia in August 1991, where Poandl celebrated Mass as a visiting priest and Harper served as altar boy.
When his allegations emerged years later, Poandl, of the Fairfield-based Glenmary Home Missioners, was charged and convicted in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati of taking a minor across state lines for sexual activity. He was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison.
Now as Poandl, 76, is being treated for life-threatening kidney cancer at a federal medical center in Butner, North Carolina, he is seeking to overturn that conviction.
Poandl’s new attorneys have raised an interesting, and possibly persuasive, argument to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. They question whether any Catholic priest accused of pedophilia can receive a fair trial in this country after the massive publicity of a sexual abuse scandal that rocked the church more than a decade ago.
Attorneys on both sides of this case would not comment. WCPO also reached out to Harper and Poandl, through attorneys and friends. But court records and interviews with others involved make clear just how polarizing this case is.
Poandl, who spent his life in a Catholic order devoted to serving the rural areas and small towns of the United States, has always maintained his innocence.
“But the reality he faced was that it was highly likely that any jury could presume him guilty, consciously or unconsciously, simply because he was a Catholic priest,” according to his new argument to the appeals court.
If the appeals court agrees that a true legal question exists, and allows him to appeal, it opens the door for Poandl to win a new trial.
Poandl filed his motion to the Sixth Circuit in May, asking for the right to appeal. A decision is expected before the end of the year.
He is claiming his trial lawyer was ineffective because he didn’t do enough to root out bias among jurors or protest inflammatory remarks made by prosecutors.
“When you have a type of case like this where the evidence is a ‘he said and she said,’ and also given the time lapse … it may raise concerns to the court,” said University of Cincinnati law professor Janet Moore. “The innocence movement has really sensitized us to the fact that the system can make mistakes too.”