ERIE, Pa. – A Roman Catholic priest was arrested and charged Tuesday with sexually abusing at least two boys during his four decades in the Erie, Pennsylvania, diocese, and making one of them say confession after the alleged assaults.
State Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the arrest of the 64-year-old Rev. David Poulson, of Oil City, as part of a statewide grand jury investigation. According to court records, Poulson is facing at least eight charges, including indecent assault and child endangerment for incidents dating to 2002.
Court records did not list an attorney for Poulson, and a phone call to a number listed for him was not answered Tuesday. Poulson was being held Tuesday on $300,000 cash bail. He faces a maximum of 64 years, if convicted, and $135,000 in fines.
Prosecutors said Poulson resigned from the diocese in February after a phone call was received a month earlier from a military chaplain in Fort Hood, Texas, saying a 23-year-old had disclosed he was abused by Poulson starting when he was 8 years old.
Poulson allegedly abused one of his victims in multiple church rectories more than 20 times while he served as an altar boy, according to a release from the attorney general's office. Poulson would then require the boy to make confession to him and confess the sexual assault to receive absolution, it said.
"This was the ultimate betrayal and manipulation by Poulson — he used the tools of the priesthood to further his abuse," Shapiro wrote in a release about the charges.
The allegations also state Poulson took that victim and another boy at separate times to a secluded hunting camp without electricity or running water, where he would watch horror movies with them on his laptop then assault them.
Prosecutors said the Erie Diocese had received complaints about what they say were Poulson's "sexual predator tendencies" as far back as 2010 but did not report him to law enforcement until the grand jury issued a subpoena in September 2016.
The diocese produced a May 24, 2010, "secret memorandum" that showed leaders had received complaints about Poulson's inappropriate contact with minors. The attorney general's office release said the memo contained an admission from Poulson that he was "aroused" by a boy and shared sexually suggestive texts with other boys.
The diocese, "did nothing to stop this abuse. They did nothing throughout those years until very recently to alert law enforcement. They did nothing to alert other parishioners, especially parishioners who had young children," Shapiro said at a news conference Tuesday.
Bishop Lawrence Persico released a statement late Tuesday denying that the diocese knew of these specific allegations until January of this year when the chaplain called. Persico, whose tenure started in 2012, said the 2010 memo mentioned by Shapiro was a third-party report that Poulson had exhibited what are known as grooming tendencies with a boy not related to Tuesday's charges. The boy named in the memo declined to talk to investigators, Persico said.
The bishop said the diocese promptly reported the January allegations, relieved Poulson of any duties including those related to children and has cooperated with the attorney general's investigation.
Shapiro said the abuse and cover-up largely occurred under a previous bishop's tenure.
Last month, the diocese released a list of priests and lay people who it had received credible accusations against over several decades. Poulson's name was on that list.
Shapiro said nine other possible victims spoke to the grand jury, but a criminal statute of limitations prevented the office from filing charges. He called on the governor and state legislature to abolish the statute of limitation on child sexual assaults.
The statewide investigative grand jury looking into the response to clergy abuse in six of the state's eight Roman Catholic dioceses began in 2016, shortly after a comprehensive grand jury report on the Altoona-Johnstown diocese was released. That report included a description of canon law dictating that criminal allegations against priests be kept under lock and key accessible to only the bishop.
The statewide grand jury was scheduled to end its term on April 30. Shapiro would not discuss Tuesday when a final report would come out or whether more charges in the other dioceses might be possible.
The Philadelphia District Attorney's office released one of the most comprehensive and earliest of such grand jury reports on the Philadelphia diocese in 2005 and revisited concerns about priest abuse in a second grand jury report in 2011.