Federal Sex Offenders



Bernie Ward sentenced to seven-plus years for child-porn conviction
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer

Thursday, August 28, 2008

(08-28) 15:53 PDT SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal judge decreed a prison term of more than seven years today for Bernie Ward, whose 15-year career as a leading liberal voice on Bay Area talk radio disintegrated when he admitted downloading graphic images of child sex and distributing them on the Internet.

Ward's case is a "personal tragedy," and a prison term may not be the best way to help him or the children exploited by pornography, Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker said as he imposed the sentence in a San Francisco courtroom. But he noted that federal law requires at least a five-year sentence, and said some aspects of the case were disturbing.

Walker said Ward, a former Roman Catholic priest whose KGO-AM broadcasts included the Sunday morning "God Talk" program, "had an opportunity to think long, hard and deeply about the problems of child abuse" in the Catholic Church. Why, the judge asked, "when he encountered his own predilection (for child pornography), didn't he seek treatment, seek help?"

Ward pleaded guilty in May to distributing child pornography and admitted sending between 15 and 150 pornographic images by e-mail, which he said were part of research for a book. At Thursday's hearing, attended by his wife and four children, he spoke briefly, telling the judge, "I regret my actions, the harm they caused my family, my friends and this community." He said he took full responsibility for his conduct.

Walker said he would go along with a defense request that Ward serve his sentence - seven years and three months - in the minimum-security prison in Lompoc (Santa Barbara County). Prosecutors did not object. The judge gave Ward until noon Friday to turn himself in to federal marshals.

Ward's sentence could be reduced by about a year for good behavior in prison. After his release, he will be required for the rest of his life to register with police as a sex offender.

Ward holds a master's degree in theology and spent two years in the priesthood before leaving to get married. He worked for three years as a legislative assistant for then-Rep. Barbara Boxer before joining KGO in San Francisco as a reporter in 1985. He became a talk show host in 1992 and held forth on news and politics for three hours every weeknight, while discussing religious issues on Sunday mornings.

The station, which nicknamed him the "lion of the left" for his outspoken manner and liberal views, fired him in December after his federal grand jury indictment was unsealed.

Ward was investigated after a woman in Oakdale (Stanislaus County) contacted police in 2005 and said an ex-priest, later identified as Ward, had been having sex chats with her by e-mail and had sent her a photo showing child pornography.

Police got a search warrant for the online account and found about 100 images showing minors, some as young as 2 or 3, engaged in sexually explicit conduct, prosecutors said. They said Ward exchanged the pictures with a group of 10 people for about a year.

Ward's lawyer, Doron Weinberg, described the conversations as role-playing. Ward said he had downloaded the images as part of his research for a proposed book on hypocrisy among Americans who preach morality. Transcripts of some of the messages quoted Ward as fantasizing about naked children, with no apparent connection to any research subject.

His motive and intent were irrelevant to his guilt under federal law, which makes distributing child pornography a felony punishable by at least five years in prison.

At Thursday's hearing, Weinberg said Ward's actions began as a "journalistic endeavor" but "ended in a dark place." They were an aberration in the life of "a very good man (who) has touched the lives of thousands of people" as a broadcaster and fundraiser for charity, Weinberg said.

He argued for a five-year sentence, the minimum required by law, while prosecutors and the court's probation office recommended a nine-year term.

"This is not an aberration. ...This is recurrent behavior," Justice Department lawyer Steven Grocki told Walker. Grocki said Ward "traded in the currency of human suffering" and that the victims of child pornography "are exploited again and again" when their images are exchanged on the Internet.

E-mail Bob Egelko at  begelko@sfchronicle.com .

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