Talk Show Host Ward Charged with Internet Kiddie Porn

By Jaxon Van Derbeken and Elizabeth Fernandez
San Francisco Chronicle
December 7, 2007

More than three years ago, Bernie Ward, a popular San Francisco liberal radio talk show host and former Catholic priest, got on the Internet and downloaded and sent out images of child pornography. He even talked about it in an Internet chat room.

The 56-year-old local personality - the host of a nightly news talk program on KGO 810 AM as well as "God Talk" on Sundays - says he was doing research.

But on Thursday, Ward was indicted by a grand jury on two federal counts of Internet child pornography - allegations that he possessed and distributed images using his computer.

Bernie Ward says he was doing research for a book.

Ward's attorney, Doron Weinberg, said Thursday that for the past three years, he and other attorneys have been trying to convince the federal government that Ward is not a sexual predator, that he was simply doing research for a book on hypocrisy in America and was not engaged in anything more.

"The government knows that Bernie was doing this for an investigation he was doing for a book," said Weinberg, who appeared in federal court as Ward's lawyer and arranged the posting of a $250,000 bail bond. "But the government believes he violated the letter of the law, and they have gone ahead and prosecuted him."

As part of the research for the book, Ward - a married father of four - downloaded a few images of child pornography, Weinberg acknowledged.

In a brief interview, Ward said he "thought it was time to expose the dirty secret of the Internet in a book."

Federal authorities learned about Ward's activities in December 2004, Weinberg said, adding: "The fact that these events happened three years ago - and they are just being prosecuted - shows the fact that nobody believes that he is a child predator.

"He is just being prosecuted for a mistake he made (more than) three years ago."

Federal authorities seized Ward's computer in early 2005, and there was no evidence of child pornography or any other impropriety, Weinberg said.

"We have been trying to convince the government that this is not something they should proceed with. They said, 'He violated the law, sorry.' "

Authorities in the case noted that Ward was monitored as he went on a chat room and sent and received images, sources familiar with the case said. Weinberg did not comment on the details of those accusations, other than to confirm that his client is accused of distribution of images.

The possession of child pornography alone is a felony, without regard to intent, according to federal statutes. Federal law allows for the accidental discovery of three images or less to be forgiven, as long as the matter is promptly reported or that the images are immediately destroyed. There is no indication that Ward took such steps.

The minimum penalty is five years per image.

Federal authorities, citing a seal on the indictment against Ward, would not outline the details of the accusations. A San Francisco grand jury heard the case, which was handled by the U.S. Department of Justice because the U.S. attorney at the time - Kevin Ryan - asserted a conflict of interest that recused local federal prosecutors.

"I'd like to say what this is not," Ward told The Chronicle late Thursday. "It's not child abuse. It wasn't solicitation. I wasn't part of any ring. Most importantly, there was nothing on my computer. None of this was for titillation or entertainment."

He said he hopes that the charges "don't overshadow the fact that I've spent most of my life serving people. Everything I've done in my life has been with good intentions."

A statement from KGO radio called Ward "a valued, longtime employee."

"We were just recently made aware of these serious charges and are surprised and concerned by their nature," read the statement, in which the station said it would have no further comment. Ward's last show was Tuesday night; a substitute will take over his 10 p.m.-to-1 a.m. slot until further notice, the station said.

Born and raised in San Francisco, Ward graduated from St. Ignatius High School and, in 1973, from the University of San Francisco.

In 1977, he earned a theology degree from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley. The same year, he was ordained to the priesthood with the Society of the Precious Blood. Ward left the priesthood after two years. He has said that he wanted a wife and child and believed he could continue to serve God outside the clergy. He married a physician and they had four children.

After leaving the priesthood, Ward taught at Cardinal Newman High School in Santa Rosa and at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose. From 1982 to 1985 he worked for then-Rep. Barbara Boxer as her chief legislative assistant.

He joined KGO in 1985, initially as a fill-in talk show host, then as a general assignment reporter, then as political reporter. He has won numerous national awards for his reporting, including an Associated Press award for his coverage of riots in Los Angeles.

In the mid-1990s, he partnered with reporters from the San Francisco Examiner on a series of investigative stories exposing financial and sexual improprieties within the San Francisco Archdiocese. He won a national award for those stories.

Billed by his station as "the lion of the left," he has appeared regularly on national television in recent years, railing against the Bush administration and the war in Iraq.

"His listeners adore him; he has a very devoted audience," said Margo Magowan, who for six years was producer of Ward's nightly broadcast. "He's always been a wonderful person to work with. And he is such a wonderful father. During commercial breaks, his kids would call him. Bernie would drop everything to solve whatever crisis came up, whether it was a homework problem or somebody locking themselves in the bathroom. Then he went back on air without missing a beat."

For 22 years, he spent his Sunday mornings behind the microphone on the show that he created and has said was closest to his heart - "God Talk." Ward discussed a wide range of topics, from spirituality to the Christian message of helping the poor. He also focused on misdeeds within organized religion, especially his own faith, making him a controversial and provocative figure. He created the irreverent "Church of the Holy Donut," which now has 7,000 members.

Every Thanksgiving, he led a charity drive that has raised about $5 million. Several years ago, as part of the station's fund-raising drive for leukemia, he sat on a billboard for 24 hours to raise $75,000.

On Thursday, members of his "flock" called Ward a tireless champion for social justice.

"Our heart goes out to Bernie and his family," said Poncho Guevara, executive director of Sacred Heart Community Service in San Jose. "Bernie has been an incredible leader. His approach is not only to talk about what is broken in society, but to inspire people to fix it."

Susan Prather, founder and executive director of Fresh Start, a Walnut Creek organization that helps the poor and homeless, credited Ward with saving her program seven years ago when funds had run out.

"There would be no Fresh Start without Bernie Ward," she said. "He raised $35,000 for us in 10 days. It kept our doors open.

"I think Bernie is one of a kind. He has a huge heart. He has never been cautious. Like many people he was ignorant of the law, he made a mistake and it is tragic. People who know him know that in no way is this Bernie Ward."

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