Ex-priest faces prison in sex case

April 17, 2008 10:03:19 AM PDT
Only hours after Pope Benedict XVI arrives in New York on Friday, a defrocked Roman Catholic priest who molested a Pennsylvania teenager in the 1980s will be sentenced to prison after admitting he drove to Long Island in 2006 for what he thought would be a tryst with a 15-year-old boy. Thomas Bender is expected to receive at least five years in prison after pleading guilty last year to a federal charge of enticing a minor for sex. He also faces sentencing in Nassau County on state charges related to the same incident.

The sentence comes as the pope makes his first official visit to the United States. He has repeatedly expressed regret since his arrival this week over the clergy sex abuse scandal that has rocked the American church in recent years.

"No words of mine could describe the pain and harm inflicted by such abuse," the pontiff said during a Mass on Thursday in Washington.

Although the Bender case had no direct ties to the church on Long Island, a Suffolk County grand jury report in 2003 cited abuse cases involving 23 priests over several decades in the Diocese of Rockville Centre - the sixth-largest diocese in the country. None of those cases was prosecuted, because statutes of limitations had expired.

Bender, 74, was arrested in March 2006 when he arrived at a Levittown pizzeria intending to meet a boy and take him to a motel for sex, prosecutors said. He admitted in an affidavit that he was carrying condoms, beer, a DVD of gay pornography, a digital camera, candy, gum, toothpaste, KY Jelly and a laptop computer.

The meeting followed many months of online conversations, some of a graphic sexual nature, with what Bender thought was a teenager.

The "boy" turned out to be an undercover Nassau County police detective, a common police tactic that Bender apparently was wary of, but ultimately disregarded, according to his statement.

"I had previously arranged a meeting with this person who I thought was a 14-year-old boy, but I canceled the meeting because I thought it might have been a police sting," he said. "I had heard about police stings occurring to catch persons in these types of situations."

Bender was sentenced in 1988 to seven years of probation for molesting a teenage boy while serving as pastor at Most Blessed Sacrament in Bally, Pa.

He told authorities in his affidavit that the pope determined in May 2005 that his ordination as a priest was "null and void" and he was banned from performing any duties as a priest. Prior to his arrest, he told authorities he was working as a part-time drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor.

The federal charge focuses on Bender's crossing state lines to engage in the sexual acts, while the state charges are tied to his actual attempts to meet with the boy for sex, prosecutors said.

Bender's Legal Aid attorney did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment.


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