Now-former bishop Trautman wrote 2010 memo on complaints about Rev. David Poulson, charged Tuesday with abusing two boys from 2002 to 2010. Bishop Persico, who took over in 2012, said he learned of memo in January.
On Tuesday, when he announced the filing of child sexual abuse charges against a 64-year-old priest in the Catholic Diocese of Erie, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro provided a rare look into how the diocese works at the highest levels.
On Wednesday, that look expanded.
The diocese’s current and retired bishops explained their involvement in the case of the priest, the Rev. David Poulson, accused of molesting two boys in separate and repeated incidents between 2002 and 2010.
As Bishop Lawrence Persico and retired Bishop Donald W. Trautman commented, they focused on what was one of the most explosive pieces of evidence that Shapiro disclosed against Poulson on Tuesday — a 2010 memo that Trautman wrote about complaints he had received about Poulson’s contacts with minor boys.
Shapiro on Tuesday said the memo showed that, under Trautman, the 13-county Catholic Diocese of Erie engaged in a “cover-up” regarding Poulson’s behavior.
On Wednesday, Persico, who succeeded Trautman as bishop in October 2012, said at a news conference that he did not learn about the memo until January, when the diocese, according to records the attorney general’s office released, helped launch the criminal investigation that led to Poulson’s arrest.
Had he known about the memo earlier, Persico also said that based on its contents, “I would have turned it over to law enforcement — because let them figure it out. I don’t have the resources to conduct that kind of investigation.”
“I have to only speak for myself,” Persico said.
“I think what we have learned here is that it is better to act than to second guess,” Persico also said.
Trautman, in a written statement he released on Wednesday, did not address why no one shared the memo with Persico upon the new bishop’s arrival in Erie. Trautman defended how he handled the claims against Poulson in 2010. He said his probe hit a dead end after he could not reach the male student who was at the center of the claims.
“First, I wish to express my prayerful support for all victims of sexual abuse. I abhor the evil of sexual abuse,” Trautman said in a statement.
“Secondly, in relation to the arrest of David Poulson, I wish to emphasize there was no cover-up of sexual abuse.”
Trautman, who was bishop for 22 years and still lives in Erie, described the memo as being based on “a fourth-hand allegation about Poulson’s contact with a young adult man. There was no allegation of physical abuse or of contact with a minor.”
“I contacted diocesan counsel,” Trautman also said in the statement. “I then immediately tried to contact the young man. There was no response after many attempts of sending letters and telephoning.
“From the time of the complaint, until I retired, the diocese received no other complaints about David Poulson.”
Trautman, who allowed Poulson to remain in active ministry, did not address what the attorney general’s office also said was in the memo, according to a grand jury presentment that the office released Tuesday in the case against Poulson. The attorney general’s office used the presentment to charge Poulson with eight counts, including the third-degree felony of indecent assault of a person younger than 13.
The memo, according to the presentment, “revealed that during a recorded interview, Poulson admitted that his text messages with male minors were ‘suggestive to sexual advances.’ He also admitted to Trautman that, during the course of tutoring a minor, he shared a book with the boy and was ‘aroused.’ He then admitted to hugging the boy.
“Trautman’s memorandum indicated that he (Trautman) ‘admonished’ Poulson and told him to ‘cease and desist’ such behavior. He further noted that spending time alone with a minor was a violation of Diocesan policy.”
The memo was written on May 24, 2010. According to the grand jury presentment, one of the victims Poulson is accused of molesting said the abuse ended in the summer of 2010. And the docket sheet filed in district justice court along with Poulson’s charges states that the last offense date in the case was Dec. 6, 2010.
The two victims Poulson is charged with abusing were 8 to 16 years old and 15 to 18 at the time. Neither victim was the subject of the May 2010 memo, according to the presentment.
Shapiro on Tuesday declined to say whether his investigation also looked into how the Erie diocese handled Poulson’s case. Shapiro said the investigation is continuing.
In his statement, Trautman also said he “devoted a significant part of my tenure as bishop of the Diocese of Erie to the important issue of abuse within the church,” including the dismissal of 22 priests from ministry due to sexual abuse.
“These facts testify to my vigilance and are a clear indication that I took the problem of sexual abuse seriously and was aggressive in the removal of abusive priests from the service of God’s people. I wish to emphasize again that there was no cover-up.
“Finally,” Trautman said, “let us remember the words of St. Boniface that truth can be assaulted, but never defeated.”
Trautman issued his statement through the Diocese of Erie shortly before 5 p.m., three hours after Persico spoke about how he handled Poulson’s case, including the 2010 memo.
Poulson’s name ‘not mentioned’
Persico, who also answered questions from reporters, expressed concern for the victims and said that he “unequivocally” was unaware of any concerns regarding Poulson until he received a complaint about him in January. Persico also said that, until January, he “did not learn of the memo that had been written in 2010.”
Persico, speaking at the diocese’s St. Mark Catholic Center in Erie, said he was not made aware of any concerns about Poulson when he took over as bishop in October 2012.
“I asked to be updated on clergy abuse cases,” Persico said. “Father Poulson’s name was not mentioned.”
He said Trautman did not mention Poulson, but said “he informed me of other actors that were serious cases,” and that most of those priests had been removed from ministry at that time. Persico said none of those priests are in ministry now.
Persico said that, early in his tenure, he asked Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri to review all the clergy files at the diocese — a request Daneri has confirmed.
That review was put on hold, Persico said, when the attorney general’s office in 2016 started investigating the Catholic Diocese of Erie and five other Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania over how they handled complaints of clergy sex abuse. That probe is ongoing.
As part of that grand jury probe, the Erie diocese in 2016 turned over its clergy files under subpoena, according to the attorney general’s office. The office said the 2010 memo was among those records, which Persico said go back 70 years.
More than a year ago, Persico said, he had asked a Pittsburgh law firm, K&L Gates, to review all the diocese’s abuse files — he said the diocese kept copies of the records sent to the attorney general’s office — so that he knew the full extent of the information. Persico said he did not go through the files himself but wanted an independent review.
After he received the complaint about Poulson in January, Persico said he contacted the Crawford County District Attorney’s Office, because Poulson then was pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Cambridge Springs, and had K&L Gates contact the attorney general’s office.
The information from the diocese was a key part of the attorney general’s investigation, according to the grand jury presentment against Poulson. A 23-year-old man who complained in January about Poulson’s abuse was one of the two victims he is charged with molesting in the 2000s.
In January, Persico said, he also asked K&L Gates to focus on Poulson’s file, and he said the law firm then found a copy of the 2010 memo and flagged it “as a case where grooming behaviors perhaps went undetected,” referring to the practice of someone taking steps to befriend a potential sexual abuse victim.
Persico said he asked and received Poulson’s resignation in mid-February after receiving approval to do so from law enforcement. Persico said he did not want to interfere with the criminal investigation by disciplining Poulson and inadvertently tipping him off about the criminal probe.
Persico said he also removed Poulson from ministry and asked for his resignation, rather than remove him without a resignation, because having the resignation made the removal process swifter under canon law.
“I am asking for the resignation,” Persico said. “I am prepared for the resignation.”
Crawford County District Attorney Francis Schultz on Wednesday said that Persico contacted him immediately after the bishop received the complaint about Poulson in January, and he said Persico consulted with him about when to take administrative action against Poulson.
Schultz in February referred the investigation to the attorney general’s office because the allegations against Poulson were related to incidents in three counties: Crawford, Clarion and Jefferson, where Poulson is accused of abusing the two boys in separate incidents at a hunting cabin. Poulson is also charged with molesting one of the two victims at the rectories at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Cambridge Springs and St. Michael Church in Fryburg, Clarion County.
“I commend him,” Schultz said of Persico. “He was very straightforward in reporting it to my office.”
On Wednesday, Persico said he had spoken to Trautman after the attorney general’s office released its information on Tuesday. At the time of Wednesday’s news conference, Trautman had not yet issued a statement, and Persico was asked if Trautman intended to do so.
“I am not quite sure what he’s going to do,” Persico said. “I can’t speak for Bishop Trautman. I got enough to speak for myself.”
Ed Palattella can be reached at 870-1813 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNpalattella.
The former and current bishops of the Catholic Diocese of Erie insist there was no cover up by the diocese of allegations of a priest’s sexual abuse against two young boys.
A statement issued Wednesday by Donald Trautman, a retired bishop of the diocese, insisted there was no cover up and he “was aggressive in the removal of abusive priests.”
On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General charged David L. Poulson, 64, of Oil City with a total of eight charges involving boys who were ages 8 and 15 at the time when the alleged sexual abuse started.
A statewide grand jury found Poulson sexually assaulted the boys while employed in active ministry as a priest in the Erie diocese. Poulson served as parish priest of St. Anthony of Padua in Cambridge Springs and resigned in February of this year.
The grand jury found Poulson sexually assaulted one victim repeatedly in church rectories at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Fryburg and St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Cambridge Springs. The grand jury also found Poulson assaulted the first victim and a second victim at a remote hunting cabin that Poulson owned with a friend in Jefferson County.
In announcing the charges against Poulson, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the diocese had known of Poulson’s sexual predator tendencies since at least May 2010 but didn’t report anything to authorities until September 2016, and then, only in response to a subpoena from a statewide investigative grand jury.
Shapiro said the diocese even produced a May 24, 2010, secret memorandum, in which diocesan leaders confirmed complaints had been made about Poulson’s inappropriate contact with minors. The memorandum was hidden in the diocese’s archives for six years, according to Shapiro. In the memorandum, Poulson admits being “aroused” by a boy and sharing sexually suggestive texts with numerous other boys, Shapiro said.
In 2010, the diocese was under the leadership of Trautman, who was bishop of the diocese from June 2, 1990, until June 30, 2012.
Trautman’s successor, Bishop Lawrence Persico, who was appointed July 31, 2012, issued a statement Wednesday saying he was unaware of allegations against Poulson until January.
“I want to state, unequivocally, that I was not aware of any concerns regarding Father Poulson until I received those allegations in January of this year,” Persico said. “In addition, it was not until I received and acted upon the allegation earlier this year that I learned of the memo that had been written in 2010.”
In his statement Wednesday, Trautman said he abhorred “the evil of sexual abuse” and said there was no cover up of sexual abuse in relation to Poulson’s arrest.
“In 2010, I received a fourth-hand allegation about Poulson’s contact with a young adult man,” Trautman’s statement read. “There was no allegation of physical abuse or of contact with a minor. I contacted diocesan counsel.”
Trautman said he immediately tried to contact the victim but received no response after many attempts to contact the victim via letters and telephone calls.
“From the time of the complaint, until I retired, the diocese received no other complaints about David Poulson,” Trautman said.
Trautman said combating abuse within the church was an important issue during his tenure and he took multiple steps to do so.
“I dismissed 22 priests from ministry due to sexual abuse,” Trautman said. “I established the independent Diocesan Review Board to help oversee cases and ensure they were properly handled.”
Trautman said he had a large role developing church policy and procedures regarding sexual abuse when the U.S. bishops established the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Former FBI agents were hired to review the diocese’s records, he said.
“These facts testify to my vigilance and are a clear indication that I took the problem of sexual abuse seriously and was aggressive in the removal of abusive priests from the service of God’s people,” Trautman said in concluding his statement. “I wish to emphasize again that there was no cover-up.”
Poulson remains jailed in Jefferson County in lieu of $300,000 bond awaiting a May 21 preliminary hearing on the charges filed against him.
Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at email@example.com.