Is it possible to get a fair trial if you’re a priest accused of sexual abuse?

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WCPO Cincinnati

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.

“Father Bob” Poandl

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.”

1 Response to Is it possible to get a fair trial if you’re a priest accused of sexual abuse?

  1. Sylvia says:

    I just had to post this!

    I don’t know the circumstances of the case, but how ridiculous is this? It’s a rather novel and astounding claim that clergy can not get a fair trial because everyone presumes that if clergy are charged they are guilty and therefore it is impossible to get an unbiased jury.

    How about opting for trial by judge alone? Has this lawyer ever thought of that? Did it ever cross his mind that if he really believes it is impossible to get an unbiased jury then the best option would be to waive a priest/ client’s rights to a trial by jury (I think that’s how it works in the USA>)? It happens here in Canada all the time. Trial by judge alone, that is. In fact it is rare indeed to see a priest’s criminal sex abuse case in Canada go to trial by jury. Possibly that is financial, but, no matter, the reality is that here in Canada priest sex abuse trials with judge alone routine, and, I must say, Canadian priests don’t seem to be any the worse for the lack of a jury, do they?

    That aside, what La La Land is this Father Poandl’s lawyer living in? Has he truly not seen or heard of the throngs of Catholics who march, chant, jeer and/or protest in defence of an accused priest? Both in and out of the States?

    Has he truly not personally seen or heard the aspersions and vile accusations that “good” Catholics hurl at complainants/victims and their families?

    Oh my. How crazy is this? This is truly reaching the very bottom of the barrel.


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