Priest accused of sex abuse moved to Boca Raton with no red flags, diocese says

Diocese of Palm Beach says Monsignor Thomas Benestad relocated in good standing

By Peter Burke - Local10.com Managing Editor

Monsignor Thomas Benestad worked at Ascension Catholic Church in Boca Raton.

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. - A former Boca Raton priest who is alleged to have molested a 9-year-old boy in Pennsylvania in the early 1980s was in good standing when he relocated to South Florida in 2007, according to the Diocese of Palm Beach.

Diocesean spokeswoman Jennifer Trefelner issued a lengthy response Thursday to the questions surrounding Monsignor Thomas Benestad, who was named in a grand jury report on six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania.

Trefelner said Benestad moved to Boca Raton in 2007 after taking a medical leave of absence from the Diocese of Allentown. She said Benestad offered to assist at Ascension Catholic Church.

"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," the statement said.

Trefelner said Benestad, now 73, was working part-time at the Boca Raton church in 2011 when the diocese was informed of an allegation of sexual abuse involving Benestad.

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

The grand jury report said the victim in the Benestad case came forward in 2011 and told Northampton County detectives that the abuse began after he was sent to Benestad's office at St. Bernard's Roman Catholic Church, in Easton, Pennsylvania, because he wore shorts at religion class, violating the dress code. 

When the boy arrived, "the victim was told to get on his knees and start praying," the report said. 
Benestad then pressured the victim to perform oral sex on him, the report said.

Authorities did not pursue the case because the statute of limitations had expired.

Trefelner's statement said the Diocese of Palm Beach submitted Benestad's personal information and fingerprints to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for a criminal background check in 2009, but it revealed no criminal history or record. She also said Benestad was never incardinated into the diocese.

"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," the statement said.

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