The Diocese of Erie was founded in the mid-19th century and is located in the northwest corner of the state. This is the largest geographical diocese in the state of Pennsylvania. Due to its large size the Diocese of Erie is divided into three sections known as Vicariates: Eastern, Northern and Western. Each of these Vicariates is run by a priest or Monsignor who takes their direction from, and is answerable to, the Bishop of Erie.
During their investigation of the Diocese of Erie, the Grand Jury found that, in addition to its bishops, there were two priests who had instrumental roles in the sexual abuse saga within the diocese. There were Monsignor Mark Bartchak and Father Glen Whitman.
The Report noted, “Evidence showed that Roman Catholic priests engaged in sexual contact with minors, including grooming and fondling of genitals and/or intimate body parts, as well as penetration of the vagina, mouth, or anus. The evidence also showed that Diocesan administrators, including the Bishops, had knowledge of this conduct and yet priests were regularly placed in ministry after the Diocese was on notice that a complaint of child sexual abuse had been made. This conduct enabled offenders and endangered the welfare of children.”
Similar to the Diocese of Allentown, officials from the Diocese of Erie made confidential settlements with some abuse survivors who were under strict obligations to keep their abuse and their settlements secret.
Also, the Grand Jury discovered evidence that several Diocesan administrators, including the Bishops, often dissuaded victims from reporting abuse to police, pressured law enforcement to terminate or avoid an investigation, or conducted their own deficient, biased investigating without reporting crimes against children to the proper authorities.
The grand jury report lists 41 offender priests, including two whose names are redacted from the report because of legal challenges.
In March 2019, the Diocese of Erie settled a sexual abuse claim against Father David Paulson a priest of the Diocese of Erie who had been active in ministry just months prior to the allegations being made public. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Tuesday announced felony charges against Father David Poulson, 64, of Oil City, saying he sexually assaulted two boys over the course of many years.
Poulson groomed and abused the boys, “manipulating the tools of the priesthood– making one victim confess the abuse during the sacrament of confession,” according to the information released by the attorney general’s office. One of the victims was 8 years old when Poulson began abusing him. The second victim was 15 when the abuse started.
The Diocese of Erie knew since at least May 2010 of the abuse, Shapiro said in announcing the arrest on Tuesday. “Poulson assaulted one of his victims repeatedly in church rectories,” Shapiro said at a news conference at the Erie County Courthouse. “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 the priesthood to further his abuse.”
One of the witnesses in the Grand Jury’s investigation of priest abuse in the Diocese of Erie was himself a priest for 18 years. As a child, he was molested by a priest of the Diocese, Monsignor Daniel Martin. The former priest came forward publicly to speak about the abuse. He noted that the spiritual abuse he suffered took more of a toll on him than the physical abuse. “The emotional abuse was worse than the physical abuse, the spiritual abuse was the worst thing of all. He manipulated my soul. It’s not just what he did to me physically,” James Faluszczak said. “This has hobbled my relationship with God.”
The report also details another victim’s testimony that he was sexually harassed and assaulted by Martin and other priests while at St. Mark’s Seminary in Erie.
Identified in the report as “Victim #2,” he describes the abuse in the seminary as a part of a “culture of sexuality” among priests. According to the report, Victim #2, testified “priests who acted as spiritual advisers to the seminarians would engage them in sexual misconduct.”
For Faluszczak, apologies from the bishop and talks of transparency fall flat. When he was a priest, he brought three allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct to the church’s attention, including his own.
“Bishop Persico became bishop in 2012, and he waited six years to release that list,” Faluszczak said. “If he was all about transparency, why didn’t he release the list in 2012?”
The Grand Jury investigation and report concerning the Diocese of Erie highlighted a few of the 41 priests listed as abusers. One of them was Father Chester Gawronski.
Father Chester Gawronski became a priest in the Diocese of Erie in 1976. In August 1986, Bishop Michael Murphy was notified that Gawronski had fondled and masturbated a 13-to-14-year-old boy on multiple occasions from 1976 to 1977 under the pretext of showing the victim how to check for cancer. Complaints continued to be received for decades. In early 1987, the complaints were commonly made by parents who reported similar conduct with their sons. An internal Diocesan memorandum was obtained by the Grand Jury and indicated that the number of victims could be has high as twenty.
According to the Report, “Diocesan administrators, concerned about negative publicity and potential legal liability, attempted to assure the families of the victims that action would be taken. Internally the Diocese worked to compile data on the number of families affected and how to keep the matter secret.”
Like in many other dioceses around the country, the deceit and cover-up was not limited to the bishops. On January 7, 1987, Father Glenn Whitman, head of the Diocese’s Clergy Personnel Office, wrote a letter addressed to a parent of one of Gawronski’s 13-year-old victims. Whitman wrote, among other things, “My only caution to you … is to refrain from probing for any more information about past events as it may raise undue concern and attention on the part of people who aren’t involved.” That same day, Whitman documented the need for “discretion” in another Diocesan communication to an interested party. Among other things, Whitman wrote: I can’t stress enough the necessity for discretion in this matter. It is obvious at this time that legal action isn’t pending, or being considered. Undue attention or publication of this information to other families, or other priests would be harmful and certainly unnecessary.”
On February 9, 1987, Gawronski provided the Diocese with a list of forty-one possible victims. He confirmed at least twelve children as victims on whom he had performed the “cancer check.”
But nothing was ever done by the Diocese to stop the predator-no calls to police, no removal from In 1990, Bishop Donald Trautman took command of the Diocese. Trautman also received additional complaints in 1995 from a victim who had been molested at the age of 15 in 1986. The victim reported he had fallen prey to Gawronski’s “cancer checks.”
By 1996, there was no possible doubt that Gawronski had spent most of his priesthood preying on the vulnerable. However, even as complaints continued, on November 6, 1996, Gawronski was notified that Trautman had approved his request to hear confessions for persons with disabilities. On May 19, 1997, Trautman sent a letter to Gawronski and thanked him for “all that you have done for God’s people during those twenty-one years of ordination. Only the Lord knows the many acts of kindnesses on your part and the deep faith that you have shown. The Lord, who sees in private, will reward.” For approximately fifteen years, from 1987 to 2002, Murphy and Trautman allowed Gawronski to remain in active ministry by reassigning him multiple times. As late as 2001, Trautman assigned Gawronski to a new five-year term as a chaplain for St. Mary’s Home in Erie, and no public acknowledgment that Gawronski was a dangerous predator.
As in every other diocese in Pennsylvania and across the country, Church officials knew about predatory priests and did nothing but aid and abet them, extending their predation for decades and allowed hundreds of unsuspecting children to fall prey to these priest predators.