By Frank Eltman | The Associated Press
3:36 PM EDT, May 21, 2008
CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. - A defrocked Roman Catholic priest who admitted driving from Pennsylvania to Long Island intending to have sex with a teenage boy was sentenced Wednesday to 10 years in prison.
Thomas Bender, a former priest in the Diocese of Allentown who had a prior conviction for molesting a boy in Pennsylvania in 1988, pleaded guilty last year to a federal charge of enticing a minor for sex.
Bender, 74, of Lower Macungie Township could have received five years in prison, but U.S. District Court Judge Sandra Feuerstein said she was doubling the sentence because Bender had been given previous opportunities for rehabilitation yet continued to seek out trysts with young boys.
He was given seven years probation in 1988 for molesting a teenage boy while serving as pastor at Most Blessed Sacrament in Bally, Pa.
In 1988, Bender was accused of performing sexual acts with the Pottsville youth from December 1982 to March 1985, when Bender was pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Bally. The youth said the relationship with Bender started in 1979 when Bender was assigned to a Schuylkill County parish. He met the priest at a school musical production.
Feuerstein addressed Bender about today's sentencing.
"This will provide respect to the law and provide enough time for counseling," she told Bender, who was wearing an orange prison jumpsuit.
He was arrested in March 2006, when he arrived at a Levittown pizzeria intending to meet a boy and take him to a motel for sex, prosecutors said.
He admitted in an affidavit that he was carrying condoms, beer, a DVD of gay pornography, a digital camera, candy, gum, toothpaste, personal lubricant and a laptop computer.
The meeting followed many months of online conversations, some of a graphic sexual nature, with someone Bender thought was a teenage boy. The teen turned out to be an undercover Nassau County police detective, a common police tactic of which Bender apparently was wary but ultimately disregarded, according to the affidavit.
"I had previously arranged a meeting with this person, who I thought was a 14-year-old boy, but I canceled the meeting because I thought it might have been a police sting," he said. "I had heard about police stings occurring to catch persons in these types of situations."
He apologized on Wednesday to his family and his church.
"I realize the seriousness of the charges," he told the judge. "I was fantasizing; I thought I could handle this on my own. I was depressed and angry. In hindsight, I could see things differently."
In addition to the prison term, Feuerstein imposed lifetime probation.
The pope determined in May 2005 that Bender's ordination as a priest was "null and void" and he was banned from performing any duties as a priest. Before his arrest, he told authorities he was working as a part-time drug and alcohol rehabilitation counselor.
Bender also faces sentencing in Nassau County Court in Mineola on state charges. The federal charge focuses on Bender's crossing state lines to engage in the sexual acts, while the state charges are tied to his attempts to meet with the boy for sex, prosecutors said.
Although Bender's case had no direct ties to the church on Long Island, a Suffolk County grand jury report in 2003 cited abuse cases involving 23 priests over several decades in the Diocese of Rockville Centre, the sixth-largest diocese in the country.
None of those cases was prosecuted because statutes of limitations had expired.
During his visit to the United States last month, Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly apologized for the sex abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church for the past several years.
Barbara Dorris, outreach director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, applauded the sentence.
"All too often, predatory priests hire top-notch defense lawyers and get little or no jail time for their devastating crimes," she said in a statement. "We're thrilled that didn't happen here."