Bernie Ward Admits to Child Porn in Plea Deal

By Bob Egelko
San Francisco Chronicle
May 9, 2008

PDT SAN FRANCISCO — Bernie Ward, the most prominent liberal voice on Bay Area talk radio for more than two decades, admitted Thursday to distribution of child pornography by e-mail in a plea deal that will send him to federal prison for at least five years.

Ward, 57, a former Roman Catholic priest, was a fixture on KGO-AM 810 for three hours every weeknight, known in recent years for his fervent denunciations of President Bush and the war in Iraq during his news talk show. He also hosted "God Talk," a Sunday morning program on religion, and was a prolific fundraiser for the station's charity drives.

But his career disintegrated Dec. 6 with the unsealing of a federal grand jury indictment, issued three months earlier, that charged him with two counts of distributing and one count of receiving Internet images of child pornography. KGO fired him Dec. 31.

At a 30-minute hearing in federal court in San Francisco, Ward admitted he was guilty of a single charge of distributing child pornography, saying it involved "exchanging an image of a minor engaged in sexually explicit activity" in December 2004. The plea agreement he signed, quoted in court, contained an admission that he had sent between 15 and 150 pornographic images via e-mail.

Delay in accepting plea

Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker said he was satisfied that Ward was voluntarily admitting guilt, but he granted defense lawyer Doron Weinberg's request to delay accepting the plea until a sentencing hearing Aug. 28. If the plea had been formally entered Thursday, Ward could have been sent to prison immediately.

Ward exchanged hugs with family members and friends before and after the hearing. Wearing a suit and tie and looking grim, he described his conduct succinctly to Walker, showed little hesitation when the judge asked him about waiving his right to go to trial, and said of his guilty plea, "I worked it out in conjunction with my attorney."

As part of the deal, Weinberg said outside court, federal prosecutors agreed to drop two additional child pornography charges and ask for a sentence of no more than nine years. The maximum under the law is 20 years.

The case was prosecuted by the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., after the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco bowed out for unstated reasons. The department issued a brief statement describing Ward's plea agreement and had no further comment.

Ward initially pleaded not guilty and said he had downloaded a few pornographic images over several weeks as research for a book on hypocrisy among Americans who preach morality in public. But he was confronted by a federal law that flatly prohibits possessing, receiving or distributing child pornography - regardless of intent - and requires at least five years in prison for each conviction.

His hopes of maintaining a defense based on a constitutional right to research taboo subjects appeared to be weakened further when police in Oakdale (Stanislaus County) released transcripts in February of a series of online sex chats between Ward and a dominatrix in December 2004 and January 2005.

The transcripts quote Ward as fantasizing about naked children with no apparent reference to any subject he was researching. Police said he had sent photos to the woman that showed children engaged in sexual activity.

'Role playing' alleged

Weinberg said outside court Thursday that his client had been "playing roles" in the message exchange.

Weinberg said he would argue for a five-year sentence for Ward rather than the nine years that prosecutors are seeking. He said a five-year term could be reduced by about nine months for good behavior in prison.

"In terms of his freedom, his future, he's lost almost everything," Weinberg said. "He's not going to be able to come out (of prison) and return to the work he does so well."

In a preview of arguments at the sentencing hearing, Weinberg told the judge that Ward was "a man with an impeccable record of service to his community" and that the crime involved "an error of judgment rather than sexual proclivities."

Since his indictment was unsealed, Ward has been confined to his San Francisco home, with electronic monitoring, as a condition of $250,000 bail. He has been allowed to leave only to work, to drive his children to and from school, and to go to church.

Ward, a San Francisco native, went to St. Ignatius High School and the University of San Francisco, and earned a master's degree in theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He was ordained to the priesthood with the Society of the Precious Blood in 1977 but left two years later, explaining afterward that he wanted to marry and have children. He has four children.

After the priesthood, Ward worked as a schoolteacher, served as legislative assistant for then-Rep. Barbara Boxer for three years and was hired by KGO in 1985. As an investigative reporter, he won a national award for a series of stories in the mid-1990s, in partnership with the San Francisco Examiner, that exposed financial and sexual improprieties in the San Francisco Archdiocese.

As a talk show host since 1992, Ward was called the "lion of the left" by KGO and had a devoted following. His "God Talk" show, which he described as the work closest to his heart, included discussions of the Christian mission to help the poor and of misconduct in organized religion, especially in his own Catholic faith.

Strict federal law

Ward's indictment, and his claim that he was a researcher rather than an exploiter of children, focused attention on the strict federal law, which considers motive and intent to be irrelevant. The rationale is that anyone who possesses child pornography adds to the national market for a product that degrades youth.

In court papers, Weinberg had urged Walker to allow him to argue to the jury that Ward had a "First Amendment-protected right to research and comment upon societal mores," which included viewing pornographic images.

No court has recognized such a right, however, and a federal appeals court in Virginia rejected it in a 2000 ruling upholding a journalist's conviction. Justice Department lawyer Steven Grocki said in a filing in Ward's case that the defense asserted by Weinberg "would invite every defendant charged with child pornography crimes to suddenly become a legitimate researcher educating the masses via their blogs."

After Thursday's hearing, Weinberg said he still believes Ward had a legitimate defense but one that was too risky to pursue. Any leniency that prosecutors are now offering would disappear after a trial and conviction, he said, and the price would be an additional "five or six years of a man's life."

E-mail Bob Egelko at


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.