Diocese: Diocese of Erie
From Report I of the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania:
The Diocese of Erie was first apprised of Father William Presley’s sexual abuses as early as November 1987, during his assignment as Pastor of St. Agnes. These sexual abuses, as reported to the Diocese, involved two victims and spanned nearly sixteen years. One of the victims had been abused as recently as 1986; the second victim was abused prior to 1971 when he was a high school student in another parish.
Between February and May 1988, various meetings or discussions were held between Presley and Diocesan officials. Fathers John Rosenhamer, A. Joseph Book, Joseph Bobal, Glen Whitman, John Beal, and Bishop Michael Murphy participated in the review of the complaints. The Diocese noted that Presley did not directly deny the allegations. However, Diocesan memoranda obtained by the Grand Jury recorded the Diocese’s negative view of the complaining victims. Documents regularly referred to the victims as “troubled” or having psychological “problems.” Indeed, it was noted that one victim may have been the victim of a previous sexual assault by a family member.
There was a consensus amongst diocesan officials that Presley was extremely violent and predisposed to assaultive behavior. On May 16, 1988, Bobal wrote a letter to Murphy containing his recollection of a meeting with Presley. He confirmed that Presley had given the teenaged female victim a job and had obtained other items for her, including clothing and money. He also noted the possibility that Presley would become violent. The meeting concluded with a request that Presley undergo a psychological evaluation. Presley ultimately refused the evaluation but agreed to see another doctor at the recommendation of the Diocese.
Following an evaluation in April 1990, Murphy placed Presley in a temporary assignment. That assignment was made permanent in June 1990. Shortly thereafter, Trautman allowed Presley to remain in his position as Pastor and Administrator at the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Sykesville, Jefferson County. In April 1996, Trautman appointed Presley to a new six- year term as Administrator of this Church, where Father Presley remained until his retirement in 2000.
In January 2002, an article detailing the practice of reassigning priests accused of sexual abuse of children was published in the Boston Globe. In April 2002, three separate victims notified Trautman of sexual abuse perpetrated upon them by Presley from 1963 to 1974. One of the victims was as young as 13 years old when it occurred. The abuse of these individuals consisted of “choking, slapping, punching, rape, sodomy, fellatio, anal intercourse,” and other acts according to Diocesan records reviewed by the Grand Jury. On April 18, 2002, Trautman contacted Presley by telephone. Trautman recorded that, during that call, Presley admitted the sexual abuse of the victims. Trautman revoked Presley’s priestly faculties later that year.
In April 2003, and in response to media inquiries about Presley, the Diocese of Erie issued a press release stating, among other things, that Presley’s priestly faculties were removed in July 2002 shortly after the allegations prompted the Diocese to conduct an internal investigation. The Diocese stated that Trautman’s understanding of the alleged incidents was that the crimes had occurred 28 years ago during the time of the late Bishop Watson. The Diocese explained that the individual making the allegation was twenty years old at the time and enrolled at a college in another state where the incidents were reported to have occurred. The Diocese told the public that it had “no information to provide on other possible allegations against the priest.”
This press release was false and misleading. Trautman had personal knowledge of at least three victims, one as young as 13, who reported their abuse to him in 2002. Only one victim was an out-of-state college student. Moreover, the Diocese was aware of sexual abuse complaints against Presley as early as 1987 but permitted him to stay in active ministry for another thirteen years. Additionally, Diocesan records showed that Presley was so violent that priests who interacted with him were concerned for their safety.
Later that year, Trautman communicated with the Vatican and outlined additional details with respect to sexual abuse committed by Presley. Trautman cited information provided by a doctor who was counseling one of Presley’s victims, the same doctor who counseled Presley in 1988. Trautman reported that the information “…confirms my suspicion that there are even more victims of the sexual abuse and exploitation perpetrated by Presley.”
By 2005, the Diocese was actively engaged in an attempt to formally remove Presley from the priesthood. In the course of that effort, personnel for the Diocese interviewed other witnesses or associates of Presley and identified numerous additional victims or potential victims. Monsignor Mark Bartchak led the investigation. Several of these individuals stated that they informed the Diocese of their concerns in the 1980’s, including a report to a parish council member, who stated that Presley would not allow anyone else inside the rectory when certain children were present and that some of these children spent the night with him on multiple occasions.
Bartchak also re-interviewed the male victim who had previously disclosed his abuse to the Diocese in 1982, 1987, and 2002. He explained that Presley invited him to his rectory after befriending him. Presley then tried to hypnotize him before assaulting him. Presley took him on trips to New York and Yosemite. Presley brought other children on some of these trips, including one occasion when he tried to abuse both the victim and another high school student at the same time. Presley taught the victim how to have sexual intercourse by bringing in a female high school student and using index cards to show them where to touch each other. On more than one occasion, Presley gave him some type of a sedative to relax him prior to abusing him. Presley stated that it was okay “because he was a priest” and used his position as a spiritual guide to further the abuse.
On August 25, 2005, Bartchak sent a confidential memo to Trautman that detailed the results of his interviews to date. Bartchak stated the following: “I was not surprised to learn from other witnesses from the Elk County area, that there are likely to be other victims” and that “… several more witnesses who could attest to the brutality that they were subjected to by Father Presley.” Bartchak asked, “It is likely that there may be others who were also of the age for the offenses to be considered delicts, but to what end is it necessary to follow every lead?” He sought Trautman’s opinion, asking:
“Is it worth the further harm and scandal that might occur if this is all brought up again? I am asking you how you want me to proceed. With due regard for the potential for more harm to individuals and for more scandal, should I continue to follow up on potential leads?”
Four days later Bartchak documented a meeting earlier that day with Trautman, in which he stated:
“Bishop Trautman decided that in order to preclude further scandal, these additional witnesses should not be contacted, especially given the fact that is not likely that they will lead to information concerning delicts involving minors under 16 years of age.”
In 2006, Trautman made a confidential, formal request to the Vatican in support of Presley’s laicization. The Grand Jury reviewed similar requests in Dioceses throughout Pennsylvania. Often called “The Acts” of the subject priest, the summaries were often the most detailed documents within Diocesan records and contained decades of long-held secrets only disclosed in an effort finally to remove an offending priest from the priesthood. The “Acts” of Presley stated, in part:
“Presley is a violent man…. He managed to work his will and way by fear, intimidation, charm and deception, all the classic signs of a hardcore predator. How he managed to escape for so many years defies reason and understanding. His behavior was carefully planned behavior…..Victimization didn’t happen spontaneously; it was programmed, masterfully designed, almost perfectly executed. Given the pattern of behavior over his years in ministry, I believe that Presley constitutes a threat to others. Presley’s abuse has had a rippling effect on the spiritual, mental and emotional lives of his victims…..Presley’s case has been made public by way of the printed media–causing scandal among the Christian Faithful. He manipulated families to welcome him into their homes and worked to garner the approval of parents. He then used this privileged position to solicit sexual acts with the children. Father Presley’s behaviors of manipulating families into giving him their trust and grooming their children for engaging in sexual acts continued and improved as he moved to other assignments.”
In the course of these proceedings to remove Presley, the Bishop of Harrisburg, Kevin Rhoades, provided a statement. He acknowledged that Presley had moved to Lancaster, Pennsylvania after his retirement in 2000. Rhoades wrote that his predecessor, Bishop Nicholas Dattilo, was personally aware of this matter and that more information regarding the violent behavior of Presley had come to light since Presley moved to the Diocese of Harrisburg. Further, the letter stated that “were this information to become known, especially in the light of his offers of public assistance at Mass in several parishes, great public scandal would arise within this diocese.”
On July 13, 2006, Trautman wrote to the Lancaster County District Attorney. His letter stated that Presley was now defrocked and that the Diocese had received “credible allegations regarding sexual misconduct with a minor which allegedly occurred many years ago.” Trautman falsely wrote, “We were unaware of these allegations until they came to light only a few years ago. As a result, no criminal charges were ever brought forward because the statue of limitations had expired.” The truth was that Murphy, Trautman, and the Diocese of Erie intentionally waited out the statute of limitations and curbed their own investigation to prevent finding additional victims.
The Grand Jury finds that the failure of the Diocese of Erie and of Murphy and Trautman to aggressively pursue the removal of Presley in a timely fashion had left Presley cloaked in the authority and respect of the priesthood. Moreover, the lack of transparency and candor with respect to the concerns surrounding Presley only aided seamless insertion into another Catholic community. Presley, a priest Trautman would eventually describe as a “hardcore predator,” had escaped to a new region of Pennsylvania.
Additional information regarding the widespread sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Dioceses of Pennsylvania and the systemic cover up by senior church officials is compiled in the Pennsylvania Diocese Victim’s Report published by the Pennsylvania Attorney General following a two-year grand jury investigation. A complete copy of the Report is available on the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s website.