After 1988 Conviction, Ex-Priest Was Placed near Youth Center
Allentown Diocese Laicized Bender 16 Years Later
By Kathleen Parrish and Daniel Patrick Sheehan
The Morning Call [Pennsylvania]
March 29, 2006
In the years after his 1988 conviction for molesting a child, the Rev. Thomas J. Bender lived and worked at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Easton, home to a school and a popular youth center.
Serving out probation, barred from saying Mass and other priestly functions, he worked in the parish office — a situation that lasted until Bishop Edward Cullen took charge of the Allentown Catholic Diocese in 1998 and removed him as part of a revision of policies on troubled clergy.
Bender, 72, a one-time pastor whose priesthood was essentially nullified two years ago, was arrested March 21 on Long Island, N.Y. He is accused of traveling there to have sex with a 14-year-old online pen pal who turned out to be an undercover detective. In instant messages and e-mails, Bender said he "wanted to spank the 14-year-old male on various parts of his nude body," according to court documents.
Though Bender was never accused of improper behavior during his time at St. Anthony's, critics say the assignment exemplifies how dioceses often dealt with abusive priests before the explosion of the clergy abuse scandal in 1998 — by moving them into new parishes where they continued to have access to children.
"That was real smart on the church's part, to move him across from a youth center," said Tammy Lerner, director of the Allentown chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and Other Clergy. "It's symptomatic of what's going on across the board. We've heard about it all across the state. It follows along that pattern we see nationwide and statewide."
Thomas Campanella, who served as director of the St. Anthony's Youth Center from 1984 to 2002, said the diocese never notified him of Bender's past when the priest was transferred to the parish.
"We had come across some information that there was a priest reassigned to St. Anthony's parish who had a problem, but we weren't made aware of the severity of the problem or anything like that," said Campanella, who now lives in Phoenix. "I didn't know who it was until way after he left. I had never received any official notification from the parish or diocese that Mr. Bender was assigned there. I think, in retrospect, they should have told us, knowing there was a youth center there."
At the time, Monsignor Robert Forst was pastor of St. Anthony's. Forst was also was a member of the youth center's board, Campanella said, but he rarely attended meetings.
"The center's contact with the parish was very limited," Campanella said, noting Bender never volunteered or hung out at the youth center. If he had, his criminal past would have been exposed. "We made a conscious effort to screen everyone who was around kids," Campanella said. "We did state police background checks on everybody."
When Cullen replaced Bishop Thomas J. Welsh in 1998, "Cullen said [Bender] shouldn't be living in St. Anthony's," said diocesan spokesman Matt Kerr. After his removal, Bender moved to the Lower Macungie Township mobile home park where he has lived since.
Bender was laicized in 2004, meaning he was dismissed from clerical life and essentially made a lay person again — though his priestly character, according to the church, is "indelible" and can never be removed. Until he was laicized, he collected a pension from the diocese.
As to why the diocese waited 16 years after he was convicted of sexual abuse to laicize him, Kerr said, "There may have been efforts to do this earlier, but the way the system worked, it may not have got done."
The procedure was rarely used during the pontificate of John Paul II, because the church was reluctant to portray the sacramental calling of the priesthood as an easily terminated job. That changed in 2002 when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Dallas and set up policies to deal with abuse.
Dennis Coday, a staff writer for The National Catholic Reporter, said Bender would have been among the 700 or so priests whose cases were sent to the Vatican for re-examination in the wake of the abuse scandal.
In May 2005, the diocese opened St. Francis Center in Orwigsburg, a treatment center for clergy accused of sexually abusing children. By that time, Bender had been defrocked and was not eligible for placement.
Kerr said the diocese has notified authorities of the whereabouts of other priests who have been accused of molestation but are not living in Orwigsburg.
"If someone was not laicized or not on assignment, the diocese has notified the district attorney in the counties in which they live," said Kerr.
Bender served seven years' probation after admitting he molested a Pottsville boy for seven years.
Investigators said the abuse began when the priest served in Schuylkill County, where he taught at Nativity High School in Pottsville and Marian Catholic High School in Hometown and was chaplain at St. Francis Orphanage in Orwigsburg.
The abuse continued after Bender became pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Bally, the investigators said.
When he was arrested last week, he was carrying condoms, beer, pornography, a digital camera, personal lubricant and a laptop computer, Nassau County police said.
Pennsylvania state troopers searched his nondescript gray trailer and seized computer equipment, a binder of digital photographs, printouts of e-mails and driving directions to the Long Island community of Levittown.
Bender was charged with five counts of disseminating indecent material to a minor and one count of an attempted criminal sexual act, which carries a mandatory five years in prison. He remains in Nassau Correctional Center under $120,000 bail, awaiting a hearing Tuesday.
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