- By Jane Musgrave Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
The longtime pastor of a prominent Palm Beach church where the Kennedys, the late Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and other luminaries have worshiped became entangled in the latest pedophile priest scandal that erupted this week in Pennsylvania.
Monsignor Thomas Klinzing, pastor of the historic St. Edward Roman Catholic Church, was among church leaders in the Diocese of Greensburg in the 1980s. In a searing 1,356-page report, a grand jury said he and other high-level diocesan leaders failed to root out clergy who were suspected of preying on children.
When a doctor diagnosed a priest as a pedophile and recommended that he not be placed in a parish that had a school, Klinzing rejected the recommendation on behalf of the bishop, the jury wrote. Likewise, although Klinzing investigated allegations of sexual misconduct against two other priests, no action was taken against the clerics for roughly 20 years, the report said.
“The evidence … showed that diocesan administrators, including bishops, had knowledge of this conduct and regularly permitted priests to continue in ministry after becoming aware that a complaint of child sexual abuse had been made against them,” the jury wrote, describing what it called “institutional failure” by the church.
Klinzing, who in 1996 was named pastor of the cathedral for the Diocese of Palm Beach and has been at St. Edward since 2011, didn’t return a phone call for comment. But in a letter to the grand jury, his attorney said Klinzing’s “dogged” efforts to rid the church of problem priests were thwarted by his higher-ups.
“Throughout his lifetime as a priest, Monsignor Klinzing has remained steadfast in his desire to protect children and see that diocesan policies for the protection of children are followed,” Pittsburgh attorney Laurel Gift wrote. “He has done so in the face of criticism and ostracization by the bishops of the past.”
On Thursday, she disputed the notion that the grand jury criticized Klinzing. “The Pennsylvania grand jury report documents the sustained and concerted efforts of Monsignor Thomas Klinzing to protect children from pedophile priests,” Gift said in an email. “The report does not accuse Monsignor Klinzing of committing any abuse.”
Klinzing, 76, is the second Palm Beach County priest to become embroiled in the latest scandal to roil the Catholic Church — a sweeping investigation that identified more than 300 abusive priests and more than 1,000 victims.
Monsignor Thomas Benestad, who worked part-time at Ascension Catholic Church in Boca Raton from 2007 to 2011 and still lives in Boca, was accused by the grand jury of sexually abusing a 9-year-old boy and other unidentified victims while working in the Diocese of Allentown for roughly 30 years.
In its first statement since the report was released, the Diocese of Palm Beach on Thursday said it had no reason to block Benestad from helping out at the church on North Federal Highway. The statement said the Diocese of Allentown certified that Benestad “did not manifest moral or other behavioral problems” in 2007 and again in 2009.
It wasn’t until 2011, after the young man told Pennsylvania police and diocesan leaders in Allentown that Benestad had molested him for two years in the 1980s, that Benestad was stripped of his ability to work as a priest, said Jennifer Trefelner, director of communications for the Palm Beach Gardens-based diocese.
“Father Benestad has not functioned as a priest in any parish in the Diocese of Palm Beach since 2011,” she wrote.
Trefelner declined to address the allegations against Klinzing. They involve his work in Pennsylvania and have no connection to his lengthy career here, she said.
Like the diocese, Klinzing blamed others for his inability to rein in predatory priests. While he worked as a diocesan secretary, chancellor and vicar general in Greensburg, Klinzing wasn’t privy to church files or confidential information, said his attorney, Gift.
In the case of another priest who was diagnosed as a pedophile after admitting that he had molested roughly 35 teenage boys, Klinzing wasn’t told why the Archdiocese of New York sent the cleric to the Foundation House, a treatment center for priests in New Mexico, Gift said. Instead, Klinzing’s boss, Bishop William Connare, told him that New York officials said the priest was simply “worn out from teaching at a girls’ school,” she said.
Later, after the priest was allowed to work in the Greensburg diocese, Klinzing learned of the molestation allegations. “Had the Archdiocese or Bishop Connare disclosed the allegations concerning the sexual abuse of minors, Monsignor Klinzing would not recommend that he be accepted into the Diocese of Greensburg and would have counseled Bishop William Connare accordingly,” Gift wrote.
Klinzing attempted unsuccessfully to stand up to Connare, Gift said. He encouraged the bishop to get rid of a priest who was being investigated by police for child molestation. At one point, he refused Connare’s order to destroy a police report and told the bishop that “it is absolutely necessary to remove (the priest) immediately and send him for psychological evaluation.”
Some of the grand jury’s questions could have been cleared up if it had accepted Klinzing’s offer to testify before it, she said. Klinzing’s testimony “would have revealed a concerted effort on the part of Bishop Connare to hide or destroy evidence of abuse and protect priests,” she wrote. Connare died in 1995.
Klinzing and Benestad aren’t the only priests mentioned in the grand jury report who relocated to Florida — one even landed a job driving trains at Disney World after the Allentown diocese gave him a recommendation.
During its roughly two-year investigation, the jury said it learned that one of the church’s time-honored credos was this: “If a predator’s conduct becomes known to the community, don’t remove him from the priesthood to ensure that no more children will be victimized. Instead, transfer him to a new location where no one will know he is a child abuser.”
The jury found many examples where predatory priests were transferred to multiple dioceses across the country during their careers.
In the report, the jury called upon lawmakers to take steps to change laws that allow priests to escape prosecution because their crimes aren’t discovered until after the statute of limitations has expired. It also called upon the church to act.
While much has changed since the first priest scandal erupted in Boston in 2002, much work remains to be done, the jury said.
“What we can say, though, is that despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability,” the jury wrote. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.”