Churchill priest sentenced to 8 years for child porn stash

Sorensen also gets probation and $25,000 fine


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When police showed up at St. John Fisher Parish in Churchill in December 2011, the Rev. Bartley Sorensen thought the church alarm must have gone off, he said at his sentencing hearing Wednesday.

It didn't occur to him, he told U.S. District Judge Alan N. Bloch, that they were there for his collection of child pornography.

"I did try to lie to get out of it, but I realized within moments how foolish that was," Sorensen, 63, said. "I did not know what these pictures, this addiction, this sickness -- whatever it is -- would lead me to."

It will lead him to eight years and one month in prison, five more years of federal probation, and a $25,000 fine for possession of child pornography, Judge Bloch decided. The Diocese of Pittsburgh will now refer the matter to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican for Sorensen's possible dismissal from the clergy.

Sorensen collected child pornography, usually involving young boys and often with sadomasochistic content, for 10 years, investigators found. He had around 5,000 images on some 100 computer discs, plus books, Judge Bloch said.

Meanwhile, Sorensen led what some supporters said was an exemplary life of faith, spending his time in hospitals, with shut-ins, and with grieving families.

"Father Bart sees everyone as a son or daughter of God," Sister Catherine Higgins told Judge Bloch. Even now in prison, she said, "he is ministering to the marginalized even though he himself is now on the margins of society."

Sorensen said that shortly after he was transferred to St. John Fisher Parish, an employee called up the steps to him while he was looking at child pornography on his computer.

He said he "decided not to get rid of what was on the computer" as the employee climbed the stairs to his office. "I knew that my sin had to be known. ... I should've had the courage to go to the diocese myself, but I didn't."

The parish employee called the diocese, which referred the matter to law enforcement.

"What I did not know is that it was also a crime," Sorensen said. He pleaded guilty in May and has been jailed since.

His attorney, Patrick J. Thomassey, said that Sorensen had no criminal history, never had inappropriate contact with children, and should serve the mandatory minimum sentence of five years.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Haller, though, sought a term of eight to 10 years. "The defendant contributed to the global market for images of children being sexually abused," he said.

Judge Bloch said that collecting such images is "just as harmful and dangerous to children as if he had been abusing them himself.

"He certainly allowed his position to fuel his desires," the judge said, noting that the suspended priest kept an album of pictures of children from social functions he attended.

Sorensen shook and clasped his hands, head bowed, as the terms of his sentence were read. After his sentence is up, he must be under federal supervision for five years, with no contact with children and restrictions on computer use.

"I would've preferred to see a sentence of fewer years than were given," said Father James W. Garvey, a retired priest who went through the seminary with Sorensen, and was ordained with him in 1976. "This is a good guy who made some mistakes and now is paying for them. ... He would do better if he could get into a situation where he could receive counseling."

Mr. Thomassey said Sorensen is "devastated by what he did."

The attorney said child pornography is "the only area of the law where we put the consumer in jail," adding that people get interested in the images because they are easily available on the Internet.

"People who produce this [trash], lock them up forever," Mr. Thomassey said. "[But imprisoning] the poor guy who starts looking at it in the privacy of his own home? I don't get it."

neigh_east

Rich Lord: rlord@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.


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