|Ex-Priest's Return to Lincoln Opposed
To Be Released Sunday from Prison in Maryland
By James Washburn
January 21, 2006
LINCOLN - Francis Benham, who most recently resided in Lincoln, will be freed Sunday after serving almost a year behind bars for sexual offenses he committed nearly three decades ago while a Catholic priest in Prince George's County, Md.
With permission from officials in Maryland and Illinois, Benham, now 69, could return to Lincoln, where he lived from 1987 until 2004.
But the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, is rallying its members to persuade officials in Illinois and Maryland, where the former priest is imprisoned, to halt Benham's return.
SNAP members from four states have sent a letter to Illinois Corrections Director Roger Walker and Walker's counterpart in Maryland, Mary Ann Saar.
"We are urging you to prevent a convicted pedophile priest from returning to the small town where he has lived for 20 years when he gets out of prison this Sunday," the letter reads. "We know of at least three kids who were abused by Francis Benham.
"Based on what we know of child molesters in general, abusive clerics as a group, and Benham as an individual, we believe he still poses a risk to innocent children. We also believe that it's best for the safety of kids if Benham lives somewhere else besides Lincoln, Ill.
"If allowed to return to Lincoln, ... he'll be back in a more remote and trusting small-town environment, where abuse may be less likely to be detected or reported to authorities."
Benham was extradited in July 2004 to Maryland, where he was convicted of second- and third-degree sex offenses. He was sentenced to two concurrent 10-year prison terms, but because the majority of his sentence was suspended, was required to serve only the equivalent of 18 months.
After being registered as a sex offender in Maryland and discharged from prison, Benham must serve three years of supervised release and refrain from contacting his victims or anyone younger than 18, said Allison Gillford, a supervisor of the sex offender registry in Maryland.
Gillford said Benham's potential return to Illinois must first be approved by his probation officer.
One of Benham's victims - fearful that Benham's sexual deviance will reoccur - said she's doing what she can to ensure that children will be safe from him.
Donna Kollars, now a married 41-year-old mother of eight, was sexually assaulted and sodomized by Benham during a two-year period beginning in 1977, when Kollars was 13 years old. Benham also was convicted of sexually abusing a 15-year-old boy six times during the same period.
"I personally believe there are other victims - other children -– in Lincoln," Kollars said Friday.
Kollars, a Fairfield, Pa., resident who has belonged to a chapter of SNAP for the past 18 months, said she traveled to Ohio twice in mid-December to testify before state legislators who were re-examining sex offender laws.
She also went to Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Columbus - where Benham worked as a non-parish minister after leaving Maryland - and distributed to parishioners fliers that identified Benham as a convicted sex offender, hoping other victims might come forward.
"Usually young people are threatened by the priest," she said. "I know so many victims who are in their 40s and 50s who are just now coming forward."
When Kollars was a girl and Benham was assaulting her, he had all the power, she said. With Benham imprisoned the past year, she believes the table has turned.
"Part of me was nervous. Part of me was scared," she said, recalling emotions she felt as she handed out the fliers. "(But) that was a real good feeling, to know that you could do something about this.
"He's lived a lie, and people need to know that."
An Ohio man recently told Kollars that he, too, was molested by Benham, and knows of seven or eight other victims as well, Kollars said.
"It's just been crazy," she said. "It just seems like this big mystery that keeps unfolding.
"I guess I'm just hoping the word can get out."
Benham became an ordained priest in 1963 and worked at the St. Jude Rectory in Rockville, Md., until 1970.
He served the next 10 years at two Catholic churches in Prince George's County - five years at St. Joseph's Catholic Church in Beltsville, Md., and at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Forestville, Md., from 1975 until 1979.
The first complaint against Benham was made in 1979 to the archdiocese of Washington, D.C. It alleged that he had sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl two to three times a week from 1977 until 1979. Benham was immediately removed from the ministry and started to receive counseling.
Benham then was hired by the archdiocese of Columbus, Ohio, and worked as a non-parish minister from 1979 until 1985 at St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Zanesville, Ohio.
Benham worked at Holy Rosary from 1985 until 1987, just before moving to Lincoln, where he worked as a counselor for convicted sex offenders for nearly 14 years at Tazwood Mental Health Center in Pekin.
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