PITTSBURGH (AP) – A suspended Pittsburgh-area priest expressed remorse to everyone but the young boys depicted Wednesday before he was sentenced to more than eight years in prison for collecting more than 5,000 images of child pornography on his computer, books and compact discs.
The sentence the Rev. Bartley Sorensen, 63, received was more than the five-year mandatory minimum sentence he sought but less than the 10-year maximum he faced.
“I served the diocese for 35 years. Along the way, I betrayed that priesthood, I betrayed the bishop and the other priests in the diocese,” Sorensen told the judge who sentenced him, before also apologizing for shaming his friends, family members and former parishioners.
But Senior U.S. District Judge Alan Bloch addressed those who didn’t get an apology when he rejected the priest’s request for leniency and said “viewing child pornography is not a victimless crime.”
The Roman Catholic priest was arrested by Allegheny County authorities in December 2011 after an employee at St. John Fisher Parish in Churchill noticed him looking at a photo of a young boy who wasn’t wearing pants on the computer in his rectory office. Federal officials took over the investigation after a search of Sorensen’s office and computer turned up thousands of child pornography images, many of them sadomasochistic.
Bloch noted one picture showed a boy with a rope tied to his genitals and said “there appeared to be blood on the image” of the boy.
Sorensen acknowledged collecting the images over 10 years, which Bloch called “just as harmful and dangerous to children as if he had been abusing them himself.”
Defense attorney Patrick Thomassey argued before the sentencing and after the hearing that the federal sentencing guidelines are draconian and focused on Sorensen’s ruined vocation.
“He’s dealing with something way beyond what I can understand because he has breached his contract with God that he made many, many years ago,” Thomassey said.
Arguing against anything more than the mandatory minimum sentence, Thomassey also asked the judge, “Have we lost our minds when it comes to certain kinds of crimes?”
After the sentencing, Thomassey said: “People who produce this (expletive) – lock them up forever. But the poor guy who starts looking at this stuff in the privacy of his own home? It doesn’t make any sense to me.”
Sorensen had been assigned to the parish just east of Pittsburgh for about three weeks when an employee called the Catholic Child Abuse Hotline after seeing Sorensen viewing a computer image of a young boy wearing only a shirt under the caption “Hottie Boys” Dec. 9, 2011.
Sorensen claimed Wednesday he knew the employee was coming to his office and left the image on his computer because he wanted to get caught – and get counseling – without realizing the criminal ramifications.
“I knew that my sin had to be known,” Sorensen said. He went to dinner after the church employee saw the image and returned to find police at the church. He assumed a burglar alarm must have gone off, before learning detectives were there to arrest him.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Haller has acknowledged that Sorensen cooperated with investigators – but only after first claiming he had visited the child porn website because a parishioner told the priest he caught his daughter viewing the site.
“I did try to lie to get out of it, but I realized within moments how foolish that was,” Sorensen said.
Said Sister Catherine Higgins, one of a handful of friends who testified to Sorensen’s character and asked the judge for leniency, “Father Bart sees everyone as a son and daughter of God.”
After the sentencing, however, she couldn’t explain why Sorensen didn’t mention the sexually abused children during his lengthy apology to the court.
“I know how sorry he is for that,” she said. “He’s said that to me many times as well.”