A priest who was affiliated with Ascension Catholic Church in Boca Raton is accused of molesting a 9-year-old boy and sexually abusing unidentified others in a scathing report issued Tuesday by a Pennsylvania grand jury that conducted a sweeping investigation into clergy misconduct.
Monsignor Thomas Benestad was among the scores of “predator priests” the grand jury mentioned by name in a 1,356-page report of its roughly two-year investigation, the most comprehensive in U.S. history. Benestad, according to the document, served at the church on North Federal Highway from 2007 to 2009 and still lives in Boca.
Neither leaders at the church nor those at the Diocese of Palm Beach responded to requests for comment about Benestad’s work in Boca Raton or whether he continues to serve as a priest in Palm Beach County.
Benestad couldn’t be reached for comment. But in a letter to the grand jury, his attorney said the Vatican in 2014 cleared the 73-year-old priest of wrongdoing.
“Monsignor Benestad has never done anything that would be deemed inappropriate with any individual,” attorney John Waldron wrote to the grand jury on Benestad’s behalf. “Officials in Rome … adjudicated Monsignor Benestad’s case” and found there was no reason to place any restrictions on his ministry, Waldron wrote.
The grand jury report noted that police officials in Pennsylvania said their investigation determined the allegations of abuse by Benestad were credible. The document described in graphic detail the allegations the young man reported to the Diocese of Allentown where Benestad worked before moving to Boca. In 2011, the grand jury wrote, the unidentified young man reported that Benestad molested him when he was a student at St. Bernard’s Catholic School in Easton from 1981 to 1983.
His first memory of the abuse was being led by a nun into Benestad’s office when he was 9 years old for wearing shorts instead of proper school attire, the jury wrote. After berating the boy for being sinful by not dressing properly, the report stated Benestad ordered the youth to get on his knees and start praying. Benestad unzipped his pants and ordered the youth to perform oral sex on him and then performed oral sex on the boy, according to the young man’s account as cited in the report.
In what is considered RITUALISTIC ABUSE, Benestad squirted holy water into the youngster’s mouth “to purify him,” the jury wrote. Such abuse continued for two years, it wrote.
While police believed the young man, by the time the allegations were presented to prosecutors, the statute of limitations had run out, the jury said.
Just as diocesan officials ignored the young man’s complaint, it ignored other abuse allegations against Benestad, the grand jury report states.
While the grand jury only referred generally to “additional complaints” against Benestad from other victims, in 2005 the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests wrote a letter to the bishop in Allentown, alleging that two — possibly three — adults had been raped by Benestad.
Even after learning of the allegations by the young man and the other victims, the Diocese of Allentown didn’t discipline Benestad, the jury wrote.
“The diocese elected to rely on Benestad’s word rather than the word of the victims and the determinations of law enforcement,” it wrote. “No attempt was made to remove Benestad from ministry. Benestad was granted retirement, resides in Boca Raton, Florida, and assists with a local parish.”
Such a disturbing trend was repeated again and again in each of the six dioceses in Pennsylvania that the panel investigated by reviewing more than 500,000 pages of church documents.
“They contained credible allegations against over 300 predator priests,” it wrote. “Over 1,000 child victims were identifiable, from the church’s own records. We believe that the real number — of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward — is in the thousands.”
Yet, it wrote, because diocesan officials failed to act, few priests can be held accountable. Like Benestad, most are protected from prosecution because the statute of limitations has run out.
Judith Weiss Collins, 66, who lives in Lehigh Valley, said she was one of Benestad’s victims and learned of two other women who were also abused by the cleric. Benestad began molesting her when she was 9 years old and the abuse continued until she was in her 40s, she said.
“I’ve lost everything,” she said when reached by phone. In return, she said she received an apology from the bishop and the church paid for some therapy for her.
While she views the sweeping grand jury report with mixed emotions, she said: “I’m thrilled that it’s out.”
Still, she said, she worries that others may be at risk if Benestad is still working as a priest. “That’s what scares the bigemmies out of me,” she said.
Records show Benestad lives in a $300,000 condo along State Road A1A, south of Boca Inlet Park. In addition to the unit he owns in Atlantic Cloisters, where he is president of the condominium board, he and family members also own a $175,000 townhouse on South Federal Highway in Boca Raton.
In its report, the grand jury urged lawmakers to change the law so sexual predators won’t escape prosecution if victims are reluctant to come forward for years. Further, they asked that changes be made so the church can’t hide behind confidentiality agreements. They also want to see laws requiring people to report sex abuse to be beefed up.
StcharlesSeminary/Judith - Finally, after 60 years, Finally She Names Thomas J Benestad as Her Rapist For All To See.