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Diocese responds to abuse accusations against Boca priest

Diocese responds to abuse accusations against Boca priest (WPEC)

The Diocese of Palm Beach said information provided by the Diocese of Allenton showed Thomas Benestad was in good standing and had no impediments to his ministry when the Palm Beach Diocese hired him in 2007 at Ascension Catholic Church in Boca Raton.

Four years later that changed, according to a statement from the Diocese of Palm Beach.

Monsignor Benestad is accused of sexually abusing a child in a scathing report released by a grand jury earlier this week. Those accusations came in 2011 from a man who claimed Benestad sexual abused him when he was a 9-year-old boy between the years of 1981 and 1983. Benestad denied the accusations through a letter from his attorney.

In a statement released on Thursday, the Diocese of Palm Beach said it received a notice in 2011 that the Diocese of Allentown received an allegation of sexual abuse by a minor against Benestad which allegedly occurred some years prior. The Diocese in Allentown determined it to be credible and along with the Diocese of Palm Beach, ordered Benestad to be kept from all forms of public ministry. The Diocese also ordered him to remove his clerical collar.

The Diocese of Palm Beach said Father Benestad has not functioned as a priest in any parish in the Diocese of Palm Beach since 2011.

Prior to working at Ascension Catholic Church in 2007, Benestad had a leave of absence from Notre Dame of Bethlehem in 2006, a year after being hired. He resigned from that church in 2007 and took another leave of absence. The grand jury report did not specify why he resigned.

From the Vatican, Pope Francis weighed in on the revelations on Thursday. The Pope condemned the sex abuse described in the report and said he's on the victims' side, according to the Associated Press.

Full statement from the Diocese of Palm Beach:

In 2007, Father Thomas J. Benestad relocated on medical leave of absence from the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania to Boca Raton, Florida. At that time, he offered to assist at Ascension Catholic Church in Boca Raton. After inquiring of his status in the Diocese of Allentown, the Diocese of Allentown advised the Diocese of Palm Beach that Father Benestad was a priest in good standing, that there were no impediments to his ministry, and that the Bishop of Allentown at the time, had no objection to his ministry in the Diocese of Palm Beach.

In addition, a Certificate of Aptitude was received by the Diocese of Palm Beach from the Diocese of Allentown, indicating that Father Benestad had 1) never been suspended or disciplined, 2) never had criminal charges brought against him, 3) did not manifest moral or other behavioral problems that would indicate he might deal with minors or adults in an inappropriate manner, 4) never been involved in an incident which would call into question his fitness or suitability to fulfill the responsibilities and duties of his priestly ministry due to alcohol, substance abuse, or other causes.

A similar Certificate of Aptitude was received by the Diocese of Palm Beach from the Diocese of Allentown in 2009, with identical language. On that basis, Father Benestad was granted permission by the Diocese of Palm Beach to assist part-time at Ascension Catholic Church in Boca Raton at the request of the pastor. In addition, it should be noted that in 2009, the Diocese of Palm Beach submitted Father Benestad’s personal information and fingerprints to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for a criminal background check. This check revealed there was no criminal history or National/FBI criminal record. Additionally, at no time, was Father Benestad given an official assignment by the Diocese of Palm Beach and he was never incardinated into the Diocese of Palm Beach.

In 2011, the Diocese of Palm Beach was informed by the Diocese of Allentown that they had received an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by Father Benestad which is alleged to have occurred some years prior. Based on that allegation, which was determined by the Diocese of Allentown to be credible, Father Benestad was immediately ordered by both the Diocese of Allentown and the Diocese of Palm Beach that he was to refrain for all forms of public ministry, including wearing a clerical collar, until the matter had been fully investigated and a resolution had been reached. Father Benestad has not functioned as a priest in any parish in the Diocese of Palm Beach since 2011.

The only communication that the Diocese of Palm Beach has had with Father Benestad since 2011, was a written reminder by the Diocese in 2014, that Father Benestad continues to not possess the faculties of the Diocese of Palm beach and that he may not present himself publicly as a priest.

It should further be noted, that the Diocese of Palm Beach utilizes a Lay Review Board, which reviews any allegations of abuse of minors or vulnerable adults, and we encourage anyone with information of this nature concerning themselves or others to report such incidents to the Diocese. The Lay Review Board is comprised of primary lay people, consisting of people of other faith backgrounds, the Sheriff’s office, the legal profession, and others. This Board reviews any and all complaints related to matters of this nature and advises the Bishop regarding same. The Diocese of Palm Beach considers the protection of children and vulnerable adults to be one of its highest priorities.

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