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14 priests named in Pennsylvania sex abuse report have ties to Florida

Posted: 4:36 PM, Aug 15, 2018
Updated: 2018-08-16 12:40:31-04
14 priests in sex abuse report have Florida ties

At least 14 priests named in a sweeping grand jury report into child sexual abuse in Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania either have or had ties to Florida.

The 900-page report revealed at least 300 priests Pennsylvania molested more than one-thousand children since the 1950s. 

One priest named in the report who worked in Pennsylvania is now living in Boca Raton. 

A victim reported to the Allentown Diocese in 2011 that Reverend Thomas J. Benestad sexually abused him for two years. The alleged abuse reportedly began when he was 9-years-old in the 1980s. 

The diocese reported the accusations. 

Benestad, according to the report, denied it and other accusations made against him. 

Benestad was allowed to retire and live in Boca Raton where he reportedly assisted with a local parish. 

Benestad's neighbor, Peter Pani, said Benestad is the head of the homeowner's association at Atlantic Cloisters in Boca Raton. 

"Like the French say if there is some smoke there is some fire. But I did not have any proof of it and I never leveled any allegations," he said. 

The Diocese of Palm Beach issued the following statement:

In 2007, Father Thomas J. Benestad relocated on medical leave of absence from the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania to Boca Raton, Florida. At that time, he offered to assist at Ascension Catholic Church in Boca Raton. After inquiring of his status in the Diocese of Allentown, the Diocese of Allentown advised the Diocese of Palm Beach that Father Benestad was a priest in good standing, that there were no impediments to his ministry, and that the Bishop of Allentown at the time, had no objection to his ministry in the Diocese of Palm Beach.

In addition, a Certificate of Aptitude was received by the Diocese of Palm Beach from the Diocese of Allentown, indicating that Father Benestad had 1) never been suspended or disciplined, 2) never had criminal charges brought against him, 3) did not manifest moral or other behavioral problems that would indicate he might deal with minors or adults in an inappropriate manner, 4) never been involved in an incident which would call into question his fitness or suitability to fulfill the responsibilities and duties of his priestly ministry due to alcohol, substance abuse, or other causes.

A similar Certificate of Aptitude was received by the Diocese of Palm Beach from the Diocese of Allentown in 2009, with identical language. On that basis, Father Benestad was granted permission by the Diocese of Palm Beach to assist part-time at Ascension Catholic Church in Boca Raton at the request of the pastor. In addition, it should be noted that in 2009, the Diocese of Palm Beach submitted Father Benestad’s personal information and fingerprints to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for a criminal background check. This check revealed there was no criminal history or National/FBI criminal record. Additionally, at no time, was Father Benestad given an official assignment by the Diocese of Palm Beach and he was never incardinated into the Diocese of Palm Beach.

In 2011, the Diocese of Palm Beach was informed by the Diocese of Allentown that they had received an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by Father Benestad which is alleged to have occurred some years prior. Based on that allegation, which was determined by the Diocese of Allentown to be credible, Father Benestad was immediately ordered by both the Diocese of Allentown and the Diocese of Palm Beach that he was to refrain for all forms of public ministry, including wearing a clerical collar, until the matter had been fully investigated and a resolution had been reached. Father Benestad has not functioned as a priest in any parish in the Diocese of Palm Beach since 2011.

The only communication that the Diocese of Palm Beach has had with Father Benestad since 2011, was a written reminder by the Diocese in 2014, that Father Benestad continues to not possess the faculties of the Diocese of Palm Beach and that he may not present himself publicly as a priest.

It should further be noted, that the Diocese of Palm Beach utilizes a Lay Review Board, which reviews any allegations of abuse of minors or vulnerable adults, and we encourage anyone with information of this nature concerning themselves or others to report such incidents to the Diocese. The Lay Review Board is comprised of primary lay people, consisting of people of other faith backgrounds, the Sheriff’s office, the legal profession, and others. This Board reviews any and all complaints related to matters of this nature and advises the Bishop regarding same. The Diocese of Palm Beach considers the protection of children and vulnerable adults to be one of its highest priorities.

Former priest Edward Ganster left the priesthood in 1990, moved to the Orlando area and went on to work at Disney World before he died in 2014. The grand jury report says church officials gave him a positive reference even though they'd fielded at least one allegation about him sexually abusing a boy.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.