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Ex-Priest Sentenced for Abuse 25 Years Ago

By Jon Ward
Washington Times
March 5, 2005

http://www.washtimes.com/metro/20050304-095509-6297r.htm

A former Catholic priest from Forestville was sentenced yesterday to 18 months in prison for molesting a 15-year-old boy and sodomizing a 13-year-old girl.

The sentencing follows a guilty plea in December by the ex-priest, Francis A. Benham, who committed the acts 25 years ago.

In return for the plea, Prince George's County Circuit Judge Michelle Hotten sentenced Benham, 67, to 10 years each for the molestation and the sodomy, with all but 18 months suspended.

"It's as if my soul was raped, my youth totally stolen from me," victim Donna Kollars said in emotional testimony before the court.

Mrs. Kollars, 40, is now married and a mother of eight.

Army Lt. Col. Matthew Ponton, 42, also testified at length about the emotional damage Benham inflicted and about the struggle to forgive him.

Col. Ponton asked the judge to limit Benham's sentence to 18 months "to broker a sense of forgiveness and compassion."

Benham, wearing glasses and dressed in a cream-colored sports jacket over an open-collared white shirt, faced his victims and apologized repeatedly before the sentencing.

"I always loved you, and I still do," he said, prompting outcries from the victims' relatives.

"Don't say that," said Mrs. Kollars' mother, who asked that her name not be used.

"You were always a con artist, and you still are," said Mrs. Kollars' father, who also did not want to be named.

Benham was the parish priest at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Forestville from 1975 to 1979. He was known, according to victim testimony, for his charisma, intelligence and willingness to help parishioners.

"I looked to him as God in my life," Mrs. Kollars testified. "I thought he could do no wrong and could be totally trusted above anyone."

Benham gained his victims' trust by befriending their families, cooking meals in their homes and giving them spiritual and moral advice, the victims said.

"He would tell me not to do certain things with anyone except my husband someday," Mrs. Kollars said.

"Then he would eventually do these very same things to me, and it was OK."

Benham also was a pastor at St. Jude Catholic Church in Rockville from 1963 to 1970, and at St. Joseph's Church in Beltsville from 1970 to 1975.

Mrs. Kollars said there are other victims and wanted her maiden name, Benden, publicized to embolden them.

Benham acknowledged his actions to a bishop in 1979 when confronted and was sent to St. Nicholas Parish in Zanesville, Ohio. He was then moved to Holy Rosary Parish in Columbus, Ohio, where in 1985 he took a leave of absence due to a "vocational crisis," a Columbus Archdiocese spokeswoman said.

In the late 1980s, Benham moved to Lincoln, Ill., and worked as a counselor at Tazwood Mental Health Center in Pekin until 2000. His duties included court-ordered counseling for sex offenders. He now owns Cana Catering in Lincoln, Ill.

Benham's probation supervision can be moved to Lincoln when he has served his jail time in Maryland.

 
 

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