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Attorney General Josh Shapiro announces charges against Erie priest accused of sexually abusing boys

David Poulson

ERIE — Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced Tuesday that his office is charging a Catholic priest from the Diocese of Erie with the sexual abuse of two young boys over a period of many years.

One of the victims was eight years old when the priest began abusing him, Shapiro said in the announcement. The other victim was 15 when the abuse started.

Father David Poulson, 64, has served in the Erie diocese for four decades until earlier this year. He was arrested Tuesday morning and charged with indecent assault, endangering the welfare of children and corruption of minors.

The charges were recommended by an investigating grand jury, which found that Poulson sexually assaulted the boys while employed in active ministry as a priest in the Erie diocese.

“Poulson assaulted one of his victims repeatedly in church rectories,” Shapiro said at a news conference in the Erie County Courthouse, where Poulson’s arrest was announced. “He made that victim go to confession and confess the abuse — to Poulson. This was the ultimate betrayal and manipulation by Poulson. He used the tools of priesthood to further his abuse.”

According to Shapiro, the grand jury found:

  • Poulson sexually assaulted one victim repeatedly in church rectories at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Fryburg and Saint Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Cambridge Springs. The abuse at the rectories usually happened on Sundays – after this victim served as an altar boy at Mass. These assaults took place more than 20 times.
  • Poulson required this victim to make confession in church and confess to the sexual assaults – to Poulson, who served as the priest receiving the boy’s confession. “This was the ultimate betrayal and manipulation by Poulson – he used the tools of the priesthood to further his abuse,” Shapiro said.
  • Poulson also assaulted this victim and a second victim at a remote hunting cabin that he owned with a friend in Jefferson County. The cabin was off-the-grid and was located 10 minutes off the main road in a rural location.It lacked electricity, heat or running water. Poulson would bring the youths to the cabin, watch horror movies with them on his laptop, and then assault them.

Shapiro said the Diocese of Erie knew of Poulson’s abuse since at least 2010, but did nothing to report him to authorities until September 2016, in response to a subpoena from the grand jury.

The diocese even produced a secret memo dated May 24, 2010, in which leaders confirmed complaints had been made about Poulson’s inappropriate contact with minors. The memo — hidden in church archives for years — contains an admission from Poulson that he was “aroused” by a boy, and that he shared sexually suggestive texts with a number of other boys, Shapiro said.

“The time of protecting powerful institutions over vulnerable children is over, and anyone who abuses kids will have to answer to my office,” Shapiro said. “Children are targeted by predators because they are vulnerable, they are young and they struggle with shame, confusion, or fear. But once a victim finds the courage to come forward, law enforcement must take action. Poulson faces serious felony charges for the sexual abuse of a child. We will hold him accountable.”

Earlier this year, the grand jury learned of the first victim’s sexual abuse by Poulson, after a military chaplain at Fort Hood, Texas, phoned the Erie diocese and said the victim – now 23 years old – had disclosed he was sexually abused by Poulson when he was a child.

Diocese officials interviewed Poulson, who admitted he owned the hunting cabin and that he took an estimated 20 trips there – half of which were with young boys.  He admitted he was attracted to young men and provided the names of the boys he took to the cabin.

The diocese, by this point cooperating with the Office of Attorney General and the ongoing grand jury investigation, turned the boys’ names over to investigators.

The grand jury heard from nine other men who had contact with Poulson when they were minors. The men told similar stories: Poulson was a “cool” young priest who befriended them, flirted with them, “wrestled” with them, and “joked” about his sexual preference for young boys. Poulson plied the boys with gifts, cash, dinners and alcohol.

In at least one of these cases, prosecutors believed evidence of a sexual assault existed, but it was barred on statute of limitations grounds.

During the press conference, Shapiro renewed his call for abolishing the criminal statute of limitations for sex crimes against children under Pennsylvania law.

“It is long past time to reform these arbitrary time frames and seek justice for our children,” Shapiro said. “In this case, our investigators uncovered evidence of other sexual assaults – but the statute of limitations prohibited us from filing those charges. This victim – all victims – are entitled to justice.”

Poulson was assigned to various parishes during his tenure as a priest in the Diocese of Erie. Poulson’s assignments included serving as Pastor of four different parish churches, including St. Agnes in Morrisdale, St. Michael’s in Fryburg, St. Anthony of Padua in Cambridge Springs, and St. Bernadette, also in Cambridge Springs.

Shapiro asked anyone with information about sexual abuse by Poulson or any priest to contact the Office of Attorney General’s Clergy Abuse Hotline at 1-888-538-8541. The office’s investigation into sexual abuse by priests and other clergy is ongoing.