“I engaged in exchanging an image of a minor engaging in sexually explicit activity.”
With those words, Bernie Ward pleaded guilty today to one count, distribution of child pornography in a deal worked out with federal prosecutors. But, the deal only goes so far – it merely allows Ward to drop two of the three counts. He still could face up to 20 years in prison, and the minimum sentence allowed under federal guidelines is 5 years. The maximum fine is $250,000. The judge granted one defense request – he agreed not to accept Ward’s plea until the sentencing date on August 28th. Otherwise, Ward would have been taken into custody today. Defense attorney Doron Weinberg told the judge arrangements had to be made because of Ward’s health – he’s a diabetic who uses a machine at night to combat severe sleep apnea. Weinberg also said Ward wanted to attend the high school graduation of his youngest of four children.
About the crime, Weinberg told the judge, “We believe it resulted from an error of judgment, not sexual proclivities.” All along, Ward claimed he traded child pornography as part of research for a book. Inside court, I thought that Bernie Ward was remarkably composed. He chatted with his friends and supporters. Two monks in brown robes sat in the row with him. Ward appeared to have lost some weight, and sported a well-fitting suit. He answered the judge calmly.
*** NEW INFO: I wanted to give you a passage from the Department of Justice Press Release on the case. "According to the plea documents, Ward admitted that in December 2004, he used an online screen name to engage in an internet chat conversation with an unknown individual also using a screen name. During that conversation, Ward sent an image of child pornography depicting nude children engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Ward also admitted that he used the same e-mail account to distribute 15 to 150 images of child pornography to other individuals. These images involved prepubescent children engaged in sexually explicit conduct, some with sadistic, masochistic or violent conduct." ***
On the way out of the federal court building, I faced a difficult situation – what do you ask someone who just pleaded guilty to this crime? Not just any defendant. He was a fellow investigative reporter who covered the crisis in the Catholic Church, as did I. We worked out of the same building, albeit for different companies for the past year. I appeared on his show a few times to discuss my investigations. What could I ask him? The best I could come up with: “Bernie, any thoughts for us?” I think his answer would surprise many of his former listeners: “No.” I’d bet good money we’ll hear him as a guest on KGO radio, at some point this summer.
About tonight's investigation – I explore the conditions under which Bernie Ward left the priesthood. "Father Bernie" played a central role in his on-air persona, especially on his Sunday morning program "God Talk". I've confirmed two complaints against Ward for sexual misconduct when he was a 27-year-old priest. The two alleged victims were sixteen and seventeen-year-old students at Santa Rosa's Ursuline High School, where Ward taught. His lawyer says he was cleared of all allegations, and left the priesthood on his own.