By Janis Fontaine
A former Catholic priest living in a condo on A1A in Boca Raton and who helped at a local church for four years has been named in a grand jury report as one of hundreds of priests accused of sexually abusing children in dioceses across Pennsylvania.
Thomas J. Benestad was named in the report as one of the priests whose reprehensible behavior it specifically referenced in its introduction.
Benestad, 73, was listed as president of the Atlantic Cloisters Homeowners Association on its most recent annual report, filed April 4. However, Benestad recently gave up the position and resigned from the board at the request of board members, according to a letter sent to residents.
Through his lawyer, he has denied the allegations made in the grand jury report, which covers 70 years of abuse.
“Monsignor Benestad has never done anything that would be deemed inappropriate with any individual,” attorney John Waldron wrote in a formal response to the grand jury dated June 8. “Monsignor Benestad has never done anything that would be deemed immoral by the church with any individual.”
Waldron added that officials in Rome investigated and in 2014 cleared Benestad, ruling he could again practice as a priest.
Benestad could not be reached for comment.
Joseph Bordieri has lived at Atlantic Cloisters for 28 years and said he has known Benestad since he moved in. He said the association sent an email to all the residents in late August.
“I just found out about it. … I know the man,” Bordieri said. “We say ‘Hello.’ He lives across the way. He treated me well.”
Overall, Bordieri said, “We were friendly,” but added that he and Benestad didn’t socialize.
Another neighbor, who chose to remain unidentified, said Cloisters residents are distressed, adding that there are 83 owners and “a lot of children.”
“It’s a “big, open community,” she said. “We are over the top upset about this. We’re deeply concerned.”
According to a news release from the Diocese of Palm Beach, Benestad in 2007 “relocated on medical leave of absence from the Diocese of Allentown, Pennsylvania,” to Boca Raton.
At that time, Ascension Catholic Church in Boca Raton accepted his offer to assist.
After an inquiry into 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.”
When the allegations surfaced in 2011, the Diocese of Palm Beach said in the release, Benestad was ordered to “refrain from all forms of public ministry, including wearing a clerical collar” and “has not functioned as a priest in any parish in the Diocese of Palm Beach since 2011.”
The diocese also reported that it sent a written reminder in 2014 to Benestad that he does “not possess the faculties of the Diocese of Palm Beach and that he may not present himself publicly as a priest.”
Benestad’s alleged victim said the abuse took place between 1981 and 1983, and that Benestad forced him to perform oral sex many times over the two-year period.
The grand jury summary references Benestad’s alleged acts: “Even out of these hundreds of odious stories, some stood out … the priest who made a 9-year-old give him oral sex, then rinsed out the boy’s mouth with holy water to purify him.”
The grand jury, law enforcement and the Diocese of Allentown found the testimony credible, according to the grand jury report, but Benestad could not be prosecuted because of the number of years that have passed since the alleged incidents.
Grand jurors called the 1,356-page report, released in early August, their “only recourse” to detailing widespread child sexual abuse in six dioceses over seven decades. The jurors looked at the entire state, except Philadelphia and Altoona-Johnstown, which had been the subject of previous grand jury investigations. In all they reviewed the parishes in 54 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.
“We heard the testimony of dozens of witnesses concerning clergy sex abuse. We subpoenaed, and reviewed, half a million pages of internal diocesan documents. They contained credible allegations against over three hundred predator priests,” the report said.
“Because of the statute of limitations, the grand jury could bring few charges against these men for their repulsive acts, so the grand jury is naming names of both the sex offenders and those who concealed them. We are going to shine a light on their conduct, because that is what the victims deserve.”
Michelle Quigley contributed to this story.