- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2006

Donna Kollars confronted and helped convict the Catholic priest who abused her 28 years ago. Now she wants to protect others upon his scheduled released today from the Prince George’s County jail.

“If I can do anything to help other families not go through this, I’m going to do it,” Mrs. Kollars says.

She was 13 in 1978 when Francis A. Benham, then pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Forestville, began to sexually abuse her.

Last year, Mrs. Kollars pressed charges against Benham, who pleaded guilty to sodomizing her and to molesting a then-15-year-old boy named Matthew Ponton, who today is a lieutenant colonel in the Army.

Prince George’s Circuit Court Judge Michelle Hotten sentenced Benham to 10 years for each crime, but suspended all but 18 months.

Col. Ponton had asked Judge Hotten to limit Benham’s sentence to 18 months “to broker a sense of forgiveness and compassion.”

Paula Pettiford, spokeswoman for the county jail, told the Columbus Dispatch of Ohio that Benham, now 68, is being released because he was given credit for time served before sentencing.

Mrs. Kollars, 41, who now lives in Fairfield, Pa., wants to stop Benham from returning during his three years of probation to Lincoln, Ill., where he lived for two decades after leaving the priesthood in 1985.

She says she is convinced that he abused at-risk and troubled youths while working there for several years as a counselor for sex offenders and alcoholics. She says she is aware of at least 10 other victims, including four with whom she has spoken.

Ramon Korionoff, spokesman for Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Glenn F. Ivey, says that if Benham wants to leave Maryland during probation, he first must get permission from authorities and from the state to which he is moving. Benham will be placed on Maryland’s registry of sex offenders.

Mrs. Kollars is one of thousands who came forward in recent years, first in Boston and then across the country, to say they were sexually abused by Catholic priests. A study by the New York Times found that at least 1,200 priests nationwide have been accused of abuse.

Mrs. Kollars says she put forth her story and name — including her maiden name, Benden — with the hope of encouraging more victims to contact authorities.

“I know there are others out there,” she says.

Before pastoring Holy Spirit in Forestville from 1975 to 1979, Benham was pastor of St. Jude Catholic Church in Rockville from 1963 to 1970 and at St. Joseph’s Church in Beltsville from 1970 to 1975.

Few victims of sexual abuse find the courage to go public to help others, says David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a group founded in 1989 that now has more than 6,000 members.

“Every victim who speaks out makes it somewhat less difficult for the next victim to speak up,” Mr. Clohessy says. “And when victims speak up, things change. Kids are protected, and molesters are exposed. When victims stay silent, nothing changes.”

Mrs. Kollars, who home-schools five of her eight children, also is on a mission to find more information about Benham and other victims to prevent him from hurting others.

“We found out he also had foster care kids, boys in his home,” she says. “They never did a very good background check, obviously.”

Mrs. Kollars wrote to probation and other officials in Maryland and in Illinois to inform them of Benham’s past. She traveled to Ohio last month to testify before the state legislature in favor of allowing victims of sex abuse to bring decades-old crimes to court.

While in Columbus, Mrs. Kollars handed out leaflets in front of Holy Rosary Parish, Benham’s last stop before leaving the priesthood.

When Benham was confronted by church officials in 1979 about his behavior, he admitted the sexual abuse and was sent to St. Nicholas Parish in Zanesville, Ohio.

Ohio’s bishops are “fighting tooth and nail against the very reform that hundreds of concerned Catholics and abuse victims are advocating,” she wrote in a Jan. 6 opinion piece in the Zanesville Times Recorder.

Mrs. Kollars says some cooperation was offered to her by Bishop Kevin J. Farrell, auxiliary bishop of Washington, D.C., but she believes that the church generally has tried to shove the abuse scandal “under the rug.”

“You can’t have priests above the law,” Mrs. Kollars says. “If you or I were convicted of that, we would be sent to jail for years. But they continue to be slapped on the wrist and sent on their way.”

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