Ward complaints date back to priesthood

May 8, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
As expected, former KGO Radio talk show host Bernie Ward pleaded guilty Thursday to a charge of distributing child pornography. Ward did not comment as he left the federal courthouse in San Francisco Thursday afternoon, but he did, though, admit to a judge that he sent a sexually-explicit image of a child over the Internet. After his arrest in December, Ward claimed he was researching a book.

The judge agreed to hold off on accepting Ward's plea until his sentencing in August. That's so Ward can attend his son's high school graduation. He faces a minimum of five-years in federal prison.

The ABC7 I-Team has been following this case and exploring Ward's time as a Catholic priest.

It's the same old story -- Catholic priest gets in trouble for complaints of sexual activity with minors. Only this time, it's Bernie Ward.

Ward often discussed his time as a Catholic priest during his weeknight KGO Radio show and his Sunday morning program, "God Talk." However, he never told the complete story of what happened when he was Father Bernie.

The I-Team's been able to piece it together by interviewing people who lived with him, his superiors in the church and his former students.

"Drinking was, that was the thing you did, you got ripped," said Tom Finn who lived at Cardinal Newman High School.

"He appeared to be a good priest at the time and all of a sudden, it kind of went downhill," said Father Tony LaTorre, former vice principal at Cardinal Newman High School.

Dan Noyes: "You told me that you believe he's a predator. you believe that?"

Rosanne Schwab (former student): "Yes, definitely."

Rosanne Schwab was the junior class president at Santa Rosa's Ursuline High, the sister school to Cardinal Newman, right next door.

She remembers when a young, hip priest arrived -- Father Bernie Ward.

"He was very funny and fun-loving and probably the most popular priest on campus," says Schwab.

Ward taught religion at both schools, coached the JV football team, and gained a reputation for flirting with teenage girls, even though he was 27 and a priest. In the spring of 1978, it apparently went beyond flirtation.

Father Tony LaTorre was Cardinal Newman's vice principal at the time.

"There was some concern Bernie possibly being involved with some female students from Ursuline High School next door," says Father LaTorre.

The I-Team has been able to confirm two sexual misconduct complaints against Ward when he was a priest. First, Rosanne Schwab. Father Bernie got her parents' approval to take her to the beach for a day when she was 17.

"This was a different time and place where priests really were trusted, and so Bernie and I headed out to Bodega," says Schwab.

On the way, Schwab says Ward stopped at a liquor store, bought a bottle of 151 rum. When they got to the beach, he parked on a cliff.

"He produced a joint out of his pocket," says Schwab.

Schwab says they smoked marijuana and drank. Then, Father Bernie began pressing her for intimate details of the sex life with her boyfriend.

"Every time I tried to bring the conversation around to something that made me feel safer, Bernie would bring it back to the sex," says Schwab.

Schwab says she grew very uncomfortable and when Ward put his hand on her shoulder, she froze with fear.

"And he took that same hand and grabbed the back of my head and pulled me to him and stuck his tongue in my mouth and held me very tightly with the one hand behind my head and the other hand up against my breasts," says Schwab.

Schwab says it went on for several minutes before she could push Father Bernie away, and that he scolded her.

"He said, 'I am really disappointed in you. I thought that you were mature, I thought that you were special,'" says Schwab.

The second complaint comes from another former student who tells us that when she was 16, Ward drove her to San Francisco for a prayer meeting. On the way back, they stopped at the Golden Gate Bridge and he pulled out a six-pack of Heineken. She says when Father Bernie tried to kiss her, she punched him in the stomach.

When that girl told her parents they demanded a meeting with the principal of Cardinal Newman at the time, Father Bill Finn. Rosanne Schwab and her parents also came.

"With Bernie and parents and Principal Father Finn, I do recall such a meeting," says Father LaTorre

The girls' account of what happened angered Father Finn. After all, he was Bernie Ward's mentor.

Finn's brother also lived in Cardinal Newman's faculty house and he clearly recalls their conversation.

"'That damn Bernie.' I said, 'What, what with Bernie?' He says, 'He got caught in a sex thing with this girl from Ursuline,'" recalls Tom Finn, the principal's brother.

Father Bill Finn died eight years ago, but the I-Team knew him well. After his tenure at Cardinal Newman, Finn became a vocal critic of the church's handling of priests who sexually abuse children.

"I think that it could have perhaps addressed it in a much more expeditious fashion and I wish it had. Perhaps we'd have a lot fewer victims out there today," said Father Bill Finn in an interview with ABC7 back in November of 1994.

Father Finn helped with several of our investigations, including one in 1995 that ended with a prison sentence for Santa Rosa priest Gary Timmons.

Now, Father Finn's brother says he has to speak out about Bernie Ward.

"Bill is -- one of the reasons I'm talking to you is Bill was so not a hypocrite, that if I kept this to myself, he'd be bothering me, no matter who it is. Bill was that way," says Tom Finn.

We don't know for sure if Ward left the priesthood on his own or was forced out. He served under the Society of the Precious Blood and officials at the headquarters in Ohio tell us they checked Ward's file and found no information about sexual misconduct.

Through his lawyer, Ward declined to be interviewed for this report. But after speaking with Ward, attorney Doron Weinberg sent the I-Team a letter on Monday saying, "the allegations are completely false" ... that they "could have a negative impact on the federal prosecution currently pending against Mr. Ward."

Former prosecutor and ABC7 legal analyst, Dean Johnson, agrees.

"The existence of this prior conduct becomes a huge deterrent to the defendant getting on the stand and completely hamstrings his defense attorneys," says Johnson.

Ward's guilty plea brings some comfort to Schwab. She says it's important for people to know that someone who criticized the Catholic church for so long on the radio had his own complaints of misconduct when he was a priest.

"Too many people have gotten away with this stuff. I am trying to heal and I think that this is good for me because I know that I am a strong person and I know that I have a lot of courage," says Schwab.

Ward is due back in court for sentencing in August. We'll keep track of what happens and get back to you.

Read the I-Team blog for more on this story, including details from inside the courtroom Thursday.

Related Bernie Ward stories:

Inside Bernie Ward's online chats

Judge unseals indictment against Bernie Ward

I-Team blog: Bernie Ward and "Sexfairy"

I-Team blog: Ward fired -- for now

I-Team blog: Ward indicted on child porn

I-Team blog: Ward indictment unsealed


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