Is it possible to get a fair trial if you're a priest accused of sexual abuse?

David Harper was 10 years old when a Catholic priest and family friend allegedly woke him in the middle of the night in a rectory bedroom and raped him.

For nearly two decades, Harper, now 35, told no one about what allegedly happened on his trip with Robert "Father Bob" Poandl to Spencer, West Virginia in August 1991, where Poandl celebrated Mass as a visiting priest and Harper served as altar boy.

"Father Bob" Poandl

When his allegations emerged years later, Poandl, of the Fairfield-based Glenmary Home Missioners, was charged and convicted in U.S. District Court in Cincinnati of taking a minor across state lines for sexual activity. He was sentenced to 7.5 years in prison.

Now as Poandl, 76, is being treated for life-threatening kidney cancer at a federal medical center in Butner, North Carolina, he is seeking to overturn that conviction.

Poandl's new attorneys have raised an interesting, and possibly persuasive, argument to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. They question whether any Catholic priest accused of pedophilia can receive a fair trial in this country after the massive publicity of a sexual abuse scandal that rocked the church more than a decade ago.

Attorneys on both sides of this case would not comment. WCPO also reached out to Harper and Poandl, through attorneys and friends. But court records and interviews with others involved make clear just how polarizing this case is.

Poandl, who spent his life in a Catholic order devoted to serving the rural areas and small towns of the United States, has always maintained his innocence.

"But the reality he faced was that it was highly likely that any jury could presume him guilty, consciously or unconsciously, simply because he was a Catholic priest," according to his new argument to the appeals court.

If the appeals court agrees that a true legal question exists, and allows him to appeal, it opens the door for Poandl to win a new trial.

Joe Maher, cofounder and president of Opus Bono Sacerdotii, "Work for the Good of the Priesthood," a group that is helping to fund Poandl's appeal.

Poandl filed his motion to the Sixth Circuit in May, asking for the right to appeal. A decision is expected before the end of the year.

He is claiming his trial lawyer was ineffective because he didn't do enough to root out bias among jurors or protest inflammatory remarks made by prosecutors.

"When you have a type of case like this where the evidence is a ‘he said and she said,' and also given the time lapse … it may raise concerns to the court," said University of Cincinnati law professor Janet Moore. "The innocence movement has really sensitized us to the fact that the system can make mistakes too."

Joe Maher has helped hundreds of accused priests since founding the Detroit-based group Opus Bono Sacerdotii, meaning "Work for the Good of the Priesthood," in 2002 after his parish priest was arrested on rape charges. That priest was later acquitted.

"Imagine trying to defend yourself from the viewpoint of being innocent… Its almost impossible given the current environment," Maher said. "It's almost as if anyone who makes an accusation against a priest -- no matter how long ago, 10, 20, 30, 40 years -- they are immediately guilty in the court of public opinion. And the court of public opinion matters because that's where you draw your jury selection from."

Maher's group is helping to pay for Poandl's new appeal.

But Judy Jones, Midwest director of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, attended the 2013 trial and believes Poandl was treated fairly and the outcome was just. A new trial would only punish the victim.

Judy Jones of SNAP reacts to the guilty verdict in the "Father Bob" Poandl case outside U.S. District Court in Cincinnati in September 2013.

"David Harper was raped and sodomized," Jones said. "It takes a whole lot of courage to testify about that. But this is not unusual. Priests think they are entitled; they have a sense of entitlement. He'll do anything to get out."

Victims have no reason to lie about their abuse, said Daniel Frondorf, of the Cincinnati chapter of SNAP, who was himself sexually abused by a priest at age 17.

"Nobody is going to make this up," Frondorf said. "There's no incentive for anybody to make it up. This family and victim did not have some axe to grind with the church. They loved the church and they loved this priest. He was part of the family. This priest just took advantage of the situation."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Convicted priest Robert Poandl once worked at the headquarters of Glenmary Home Missioners in Fairfield, Ohio. Photo: David Sorcher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

David Harper's story

Holy Redeemer Church in Spencer, West Virginia, where the alleged abuse happened in the church rectory.

Barbara and Mike Harper and their four children moved to Cincinnati in 1988. The couple joined a Catholic marriage retreat group, Worldwide Marriage Encounters, led by "Father Bob" Poandl. He soon became a frequent dinner guest in their home, according to testimony from the 2013 trial.

After Mike Harper lost his job in November 1990, Poandl came to their Price Hill home frequently, often unannounced, to bring food, and once he gave them $800 to pay bills, according to testimony.

In August 1991, Poandl came to the Harpers' home and said he had a Mass to cover at a West Virginia church. He asked Barbara Harper if one of her sons could accompany him on the trip to help him stay awake while he drove, she testified.

She testified that she asked her son, David, who was 10, to go, and he initially refused.

"Father Bob has been so good to us, you know," she testified. "Please go with him."

When David came home a day later, she noticed that he did not look well. He asked if he ever had to go anywhere with Father Bob again, and when she said no, he ran upstairs clearly upset, she testified.

At trial, David Harper testified that when he and Poandl arrived at Holy Redeemer Church in Spencer, West Virginia, they spent the night at a church rectory in a room with two beds.

The Queen Bee Diner in Spencer, West Virginia, where Poandl took 10-year-old David Harper for breakfast the morning after the alleged sexual assault in August 1991.

He awoke during the night and, according to testimony, Poandl's hand was in his pants fondling his genitalia. He asked what Poandl was doing, and Poandl replied he was checking to see if he was wearing underwear, Harper testified.

Harper fell back asleep. When he awoke again, Poandl was sodomizing him, he testified.

"What are you doing to me," Harper cried out, according to his testimony.

"We're having sex," Poandl replied, according to Harper's testimony.

Afterward, Poandl kept repeating, "I did a bad thing," and said, "You sinned, and I sinned, and we need to pray to God for forgiveness," according to Harper's testimony.

The next morning, Poandl celebrated Mass while Harper served as an altar boy. Afterward Poandl took him to the Queen Bee Diner for breakfast, before driving back to Cincinnati, according to Harper's testimony.

That was the summer before fifth grade, Harper testified. He never told anyone what happened.

"I didn't tell a single human being until 2009," he testified.

It wasn't until Harper's fiancée, Lauren Cope, mentioned in 2009 that she wanted to marry him in a Catholic church and baptize their children there that Harper revealed what happened to him as a child, according to Cope's testimony.

Read David Harper's Victim Impact Statement

Harper had a difficult childhood after the alleged rape. By seventh and eighth grade, he began having nightmares and started using drugs while in high school to stop them, he testified.

He experimented with LSD and cocaine, became addicted to Oxycodone, and eventually plotted to kill the priest and commit suicide, Harper testified.

"I wanted to go and kill him, punish him for what he's done," Harper testified.

 

Charges dropped

After Harper revealed the alleged abuse to his family in 2009, his brother, Joe Harper, made a complaint to the West Virginia State Police.

Poandl was first indicted by a Roane County grand jury on three charges of sexual abuse and assault, and arraigned in February 2010.

Rev. Robert Poandl

But six months later, those charges were dropped.

A judge dismissed the case because Harper had not disclosed all of his medical records before trial. The judge criticized Harper, and refused to reconsider when prosecutors revealed that someone else was to blame.

"The court specifically finds that David Harper has manipulated the process, and the Court cannot trust that he will make a fair and honest disclosure," Judge David Nibert wrote in a September 2010 order dismissing the case.

For more than a year, Poandl had been recalled back to the order's Fairfield headquarters, where he had been in protective custody, and unable to function as a priest or wear a white collar.

In the aftermath of the charges being dropped, Poandl's criminal records were expunged and he returned to public ministry in Claxton, Georgia.

Poandl's case became a chapter in the book "Catholic Priests Falsely Accused: The Facts, The Frauds, The Stories" by David Pierre.

"From the beginning it was clear to me that this man was innocent," Poandl's attorney, Anita Ashley, said in the book.

Ashley, who is now a Roane County Circuit Judge, said in the book that with the exception of some adoption cases, this case was the most satisfying result she'd had in 30 years of practicing law.

"Of course, I had known that this man was not trustworthy from the moment he accused me," Poandl said in the book. "I knew that I had not hurt him in any way, let alone committed that terrible crime against him. I also know that lying makes it all the harder for any true victim of such a crime to come forth and be believed. But until (the court ruling), it was simply my word against (his) – and because of some very sad history in our church, my word was strongly questioned."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Convicted priest Robert Poandl once worked at the headquarters of Glenmary Home Missioners in Fairfield, Ohio. Photo: David Sorcher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A case resurrected

But the case wasn't over.

Federal authorities launched their own probe and in November 2012, a grand jury in Cincinnati indicted Poandl on a single charge of taking a minor across state lines for sexual activity.

Poandl was removed from public ministry a second time and placed on house arrest.

This time the case would go to trial.

It had been nearly a decade since a sexual abuse scandal had swept Catholic churches in cities nationwide, including Cincinnati, where three priests were eventually defrocked because of sexual misconduct with children.

In 2003 an Ohio state judge found the Archdiocese of Cincinnati guilty of failing to report sexually abusive priests in the 1970s and 80s as part of a plea deal with the diocese.

Poandl's attorney in his West Virginia case, Anita Ashley, was worried about the trial in Cincinnati.

Anita Harold Ashley was Poandl's defense attorney in his West Virginia criminal case. Those charges were dropped in 2010.

She was particularly worried about jury selection, and gave Poandl's new attorney, Stephen Wenke, a copy of the jury forms she had intended to use.

"We were concerned, heading into trial, that there might have been strong bias against our Catholic priest client, since so many jurors were aware of the sex abuse scandals in the church which had been all over the media," according to Ashley's affidavit.

During the September 2013 trial, the federal courtroom was packed with reporters, Poandl's supporters, who silently prayed the rosary each day, and family and friends from both sides.

A man from Georgia came to watch the trial for several days. He also claimed to have been sexually abused by Poandl as a child, said SNAP's Judy Jones.

During the trial, prosecutors were prepared to bring up two other sexual abuse allegations, but since Poandl never testified, the jury never heard about them.

Both allegations involved boys, ages 10 to 12, whose families met Poandl through the Marriage Encounters group he led. In one case, he was accused of fondling a child while he was in the bathtub. In the other, he was accused of performing oral sex on the child, according to court documents.

The jury convicted Poandl, and U.S. District Court Judge Michael Barrett denied his motion to overturn the verdict.

"They asked me to sit as the thirteenth juror and to overrule what the jury decided. Had I sat as the thirteenth juror, I would have joined them in their guilty finding," Barrett said, according to court documents.

Barrett sentenced Poandl to 90 months in prison.

 

"He preyed on the weak and the poor, he preyed on children to satisfy his sexual desires," Harper, then 32, said at the sentencing hearing in February 2014. "It is time for justice to finally be served."

Two of Poandl's nephews, his sister and his doctor urged the judge to give Poandl the most lenient sentence.

"If you want to send an innocent man to jail, send me," said his nephew Frank Poandl. "He didn't do it."

Poandl also maintained his innocence.

"I am repulsed by the notion of child sexual abuse," and would pray for wrongly accused priests "as I find myself the victim of that as well," Poandl said at his sentencing hearing.

Maher spoke with Poandl the day before he was sentenced, and said the priest was steadfast in his innocence.

"Father Bob Poandl is 100 percent innocent based on my experience with Father Bob and other priests who have been guilty," Maher said. "Given his age and his health, honestly, I don't think we as taxpayers should be paying for him to be incarcerated.

"Father Bob" Poandl outside U.S. District Court in Cincinnati in September 2013.

The appeals

The first time Poandl appealed his conviction to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2015, he wasn't successful.

The court upheld his conviction by a 2-1 vote. But one judge on the panel believed that Poandl did, in fact, deserve a new trial.

Appellate Circuit Judge Karen Nelson Moore wrote in her dissenting opinion that a prosecutor inflamed the passions and prejudices of jurors by implying over and over again that Poandl might have abused other boys, and that the jury must protect other children.

"One thing is clear: The jury believed David Harper," Moore wrote. "What we cannot determine, however, is whether the jury found him credible because they felt obligated to find Poandl guilty out of sympathy for David Harper, or anger at the Catholic church, or because they thought Poandl abused other boys, or out of fear that Poandl would abuse other children."

Criminal charges in this case are particularly likely to arouse anger and disgust, she wrote.

"In recent years, there has been extensive national coverage of numerous allegations that Catholic priests have sexually abused children," she wrote. "Sexual-abuse cases are always emotionally charged … particularly in light of the coverage about the Catholic church's alleged failure to respond. Thus given the extraordinarily emotional nature of this case, it was incumbent on the prosecutors to toe the line between hard and foul blows."

George Washington University law professor Stephen Saltzburg is the lead attorney on Poandl's latest appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Poandl's new attorneys, Stephen Salzburg and Jonathan Gitlen of Washington, D.C., seem to seize on Moore's comments in their most recent appeal.

Their appeal accuses Poandl's trial attorney of not doing enough to overcome juror bias against Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse, and other mistakes.

Moore, the UC law professor, believes it is a distinctive, interesting point: the difficultly created by media coverage of this case, and other high-profile cases.

"I think that it's an intriguing concern: the role of media in setting the context which decisions are made in courtrooms," Moore said. "It's a gnarly issue. You have First Amendment concerns on one side, and due process concerns on the other side."

And jurors bring a lot into the courtroom, whether its racial bias, or the belief that a person is guilty simply because he or she was charged, she said.

"A priest is always behind the eight ball when you're defending yourself," Maher said. "It's hard enough to prove something happened. Try having to prove that it didn't happen."

She likened the slew of sexual abuse cases against priests over the past decade to the day care sex abuse hysteria in the 1980s, in which hundreds of wild accusations, including Satanic sex rituals, were leveled against day care workers nationwide. In many cases, charges were eventually dropped and convictions overturned on appeal.

Janet Moore, UC law school professor, stands in the UC Law Library. Photo: David Sorcher

"There were waves of convictions of folks with really problematic evidence presented," Moore said. "It usually takes 20 to 30 years to let the heat subside and allow people to take another look at the quality of evidence (in these cases)."

In the meantime, both sides will wait on the appeals court decision, which is expected sometime this year.

"We've had so very few priests who have won appeals … I don't know of any," Maher said.

Whatever the high court decides, it won't change Frondorf's opinion of what happened in this case.

"Even if the court determined that Mr. Poandl had ineffective counsel," Frondorf said, "it doesn't mean that this didn't happen and the nightmares and horrors that Mr. Harper went through, weren't real."