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  Ex-Columbus Priest Accused of Molesting 2 Teens

By Dennis M. Mahoney
Columbus Dispatch
August 20, 2004

A priest who served in the Columbus Catholic Diocese from 1979 to 1985 has been accused of molesting two teenagers while he was pastor of a Maryland church.

The Rev. Frank Benham, 67, is free on bond after he was extradited from Lincoln, Ill., to Prince George's County, Md. He is charged with second- and third-degree sex offenses, which carry maximum prison sentences of 20 and 10 years, respectively.

Benham, ordained in 1963 as a priest of the Washington, D.C., Archdiocese, is accused of repeatedly molesting a 13-year-old girl and a 15-year-old boy from 1975 to 1979 while pastor of the Church of the Holy Spirit in Forestville, Md.

Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Washington Archdiocese, said Benham was removed from ministry and sent to counseling in 1979 when the abuse allegation made by the girl was found to be credible. She would not say where the counseling took place.

That same year, Benham was allowed to leave Washington and join the Columbus Diocese as a priest. He was assigned to St. Nicholas Church in Zanesville. Gibbs said the Columbus Diocese was aware of Benham's past.

Benham was allowed into the Columbus Diocese by Bishop Edward Herrmann, who had been an auxiliary bishop in Washington before coming to Columbus in 1973. Herrmann died in 1999.

Robin Miller, spokeswoman for the Columbus Diocese, said Benham's personnel file notes that he had "legal problems," but does not include details.

From 1979 to 1984, Benham was associate pastor of St. Nicholas. In 1984, he was named administrator of the Community of Holy Rosary/St. John on the South Side by Bishop James A. Griffin, who replaced Herrmann in 1983.

Benham quit "rather abruptly" at Holy Rosary/St. John in 1985, Miller said, adding that his file cites "social justice issues" as the reason. She said she does not know what that means.

Marilyn Oberting, a longtime member of Holy Rosary/St. John, said she remembers returning to church in 1985 after a brief illness and being surprised to learn Benham was gone.

"I thought he was a nice person," she said. "It was very strange how fast he left, though."

In 1993, Benham contacted Griffin and asked to be allowed to return to the Columbus Diocese as a priest, Miller said. The bishop denied the request, she said, and told Benham he needed to contact the Washington Archdiocese.

Gibbs said Benham did not contact the archdiocese.

The Columbus Diocese received a third-party call in 2002 that mentioned a possible incident of sex-abuse involving Benham here, Miller said. However, the caller later told the diocese that the family would not pursue the matter.

The diocese did not investigate because it did not have enough information, Miller said.

After leaving Holy Rosary/St. John, Benham was identified in a short story in a May 1986 edition of The Dispatch as the new director of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program on E. Broad Street. However, local and state drug/alcohol program officials said they have no records of Benham or of the program.

Benham moved from Columbus to Illinois, and is now retired after working as a drug and alcohol counselor, said his attorney, Fred Bennett.

"He thought his whole situation in Maryland, his whole priesthood in Maryland, was behind him," Bennett said. "He's moved on with his life and now he gets this."

Gibbs said the young woman who accused Benham did not report the alleged abuse to law-enforcement authorities in 1979, and she does not know why.

It was reported in 1995, she said, along with a second allegation involving a different young woman, who said she was molested between 1970 and 1971. But law enforcement did nothing until this year, when the archdiocese became aware of, and reported, the allegation involving the teenage boy, Gibbs said.

Ramon Korionoff, spokesman for the state's attorney for Prince George's County, said there is no statute of limitations on such sex crimes in Maryland.

Korionoff did not rule out an additional charge against Benham involving the 1970-71 allegation.

The case likely will be presented to a grand jury, he said.

 
 

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