A Voice for Victims: Attorney general, bishop discuss protection of children in wake of abuse charges against priest
BY MARY SOLBERG | FAITHLIFE
Bishop Lawrence Persico and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro met in Erie May 16 to share their common concern for the victims of sexual abuse.
The meeting came about one week after Father David Poulson, a priest of the Diocese of Erie, was charged by Shapiro’s office with eight counts of abuse related to encounters with two boys in three counties of the diocese between 2002 and 2010.
The meeting between the leader of a Catholic diocese and Pennsylvania's chief law enforcement officer is even more noteworthy considering the impending release of a report by a state grand jury.
Empaneled since 2016, the grand jury is investigating how the Diocese of Erie and five other dioceses handled allegations of sex abuse by clergy and others. It is expected to release its report at the end of June.
“I realize that the grand jury report will contain information that will be difficult for all of us to hear, but in order for us to focus on the future, we have to have a solid knowledge of the past,” Bishop Persico said in a statement released after his meeting with Shapiro. “The grand jury investigation and its report will provide a voice for the victims. We must listen to that voice and learn from it as we move forward.”
Shapiro, in a statement released by his office, said, “Bishop Persico has … not sought to block these matters from seeing public light, or attempted to keep victims’ voices from finally being heard. I commend his actions.”
Bishop Persico has been committed to being transparent in cases of sex abuse in the diocese.
In January, he received credible allegations of sexual abuse against Poulson and immediately contacted Shapiro’s office and other enforcement agencies. He also hired independent investigators to look into the case, and subsequently turned the findings over to the attorney general’s office.
Bishop Persico requested Poulson’s resignation as pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Cambridge Springs, and removed him from active priestly ministry.
On April 6, the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth unveiled its revised Policy for the Protection of Children. The new approach included the unusual step of releasing the names of 34 priests (including Poulson) and 17 lay people who have been credibly accused of action—or inaction—dating back to the 1940s that disqualifies them from working with children in the Diocese of Erie.
On May 8, Shapiro announced in Erie numerous charges brought against Poulson, 64. According to court records, Poulson is charged with a total of eight counts of abuse, ranging from felonies to misdemeanors. The charges stem from offenses in 2002, 2003, 2006 and 2010.
The charges relate to abuse in three counties located in the diocese: Crawford, Clarion and Jefferson. The case has been consolidated in Jefferson County, where Poulson co-owned a cabin in which some of the abuse is alleged to have occurred. He is being held at the Jefferson County Prison on $300,000 bond, and is scheduled to appear at a preliminary hearing May 31.
Poulson served as pastor of St. Anthony from 2010 to the date of his resignation in February. Previously, he was pastor at St. Michael Parish in Fryburg, from 2000 to November 2010.
Shapiro said he was “encouraged” by the response of the Diocese of Erie and its counsel Mark Rush.
“The Diocese has accepted responsibility by acknowledging this abhorrent abuse, expressing sorrow and regret, and announcing steps to prevent these horrors from happening again,” Shapiro stated.
During the meeting between Shapiro and the bishop, they discussed the impending grand jury report and the diocese’s efforts to implement a revised Policy for the Protection of Children, which, in part, streamlines reporting procedures and expands the role of the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth.
“I remain committed to transparency,” Bishop Persico said. “The Diocese of Erie is doing all it can to ensure a healthy, safe environment for all of the children entrusted to its care. In that endeavor, we are fully aligned with law enforcement, and they have my full cooperation.”
List of credibly accused will be updated regularly
On May 18, the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth added more names to its list of people who have been credibly accused of actions—or inactions—that disqualify them from working with children and youth.
The list was first announced April 6 and will be updated regularly at https://www.eriercd.org/childprotection/policyupdatenotice.html.
The Diocese of Erie's revised Policy for the Protection of Children is considered among the most comprehensive in the nation.
Significant updates include:
- An expanded set of definitions that leave no doubt as to what constitutes abuse (sexual, physical, emotional and neglectful)
- The Office for the Protection of Children and Youth will become the central depository of all allegations from any school, agency, parish or other source connected to the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Erie
- In addition to state clearances as a condition of working with children in the diocese, employees who work with children also will need a clearance from the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth. Any employers, whether public or private—as well as anyone supervising volunteers—may contact the Office for the Protection of Children and Youth to request a clearance for prospective employees.