Parents to have option of viewing photos ex-pastor took of their children

Parents to have option of viewing photos ex-pastor took of their children
Stephen Pohl (Source: LMDC)
Stephen Pohl (Source: LMDC)

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Parents of St. Margaret Mary students whose children can be identified in photos found on Fr. Stephen Pohl's digital devices will be offered the option of viewing the pictures within the next few weeks, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Pohl was sentenced in U.S. District Court on Tuesday for accessing child pornography while pastor at St. Margaret Mary parish in St. Matthews. Judge David J. Hale sentenced him to 33 months in prison, a $7,500 fine, and a lifetime of supervised release. The prison sentence is four-months shorter than had been recommended. There is no parole in the federal criminal justice system.

Prosecutors stressed that although no pornographic pictures of children who attend St. Margaret Mary were located on Pohl's digital devices, parents remain concerned about the content of the photos and identities of the students who are depicted in them. For that reason, the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI are in the process of identifying students in photos that were recovered from Pohl's seized devices. They will contact the parents of identifiable students soon by mail. A general list will not be published or distributed.

As a mother to two students at St. Margaret Mary School, Jill Higginbotham said there will be some build-up as parents wait to see if their children were photographed, including her own.

"If they send them our way I think it is something we would look at and talk to our children about and coach them through it," Higginbotham said.

While one family has already filed a lawsuit against the Roman Catholic Bishop of Louisville, Higginbotham said she has full faith in the administration at St. Margaret Mary's.

"St. Margaret Mary diligently teaches the kids, 'good touch, bad touch' and so they tell them if they get feeling in their stomach that something isn't right you need to let someone know. And there were children that were able to get that feeling just from their photograph being taken and let someone know," Higginbotham said.

She said she hopes once the photographs are released to the parents, families will be more at ease.

"I think it actually, in the end, I hope it will give parents some relief in knowing that even though it happened, though their child didn't realize it, hopefully they aren't affected for a lifetime," Higginbotham said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office said the only pornographic photos found on Pohl's devices were pictures he searched for and viewed online.

Pohl pleaded guilty in January 2016 to a single charge of knowingly accessing child pornography. The crimes occurred between January and August 2015.

Pohl was charged with the crime on Aug. 21, 2015 after law enforcement officials executed two federal search warrants on Aug. 12 in Pohl's work and living spaces in the parish office and rectory of St. Margaret Mary Catholic Community, located at 7813 Shelbyville Road.

Wearing a gray jumpsuit in court on Tuesday, Pohl apologized to the parishioners of St. Margaret Mary, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, the Archdiocese of Louisville and the community at large.

"I deeply regret the sadness, pain and mistrust I caused," he said. "I pray to God to forgive me, and I pray for healing and peace," he said.

Pohl's attorney, Ted Shouse, said the priest has been under psychological treatment for his issues already, and Shouse believes that will continue. Shouse said 20 letters from St. Margaret Mary parishioners and community members were sent to the judge.

"He has been a wonderful priest for his entire ministerial career, and I think those letters attest to that," Shouse said. "And the fact that people would come forward under these circumstances and take the time to voluntarily send letters to the court (to) speak on behalf of their friend and priest, I think that says a lot about Fr. Pohl's character."

No victims requested to address the court and no requests for restitution were made.

The investigation began after a child told his mother Pohl had taken pictures of him that made the child feel "weird," prosecutors said. When the parents confronted Pohl about the pictures of their son, they saw similar photos of another child and reported the matter to authorities.

Pohl was arrested in Indiana Rocks Beach, FL on Aug. 21, 2015. He was returned to Louisville on Sept. 2, 2015.

"Viewing child pornography over the internet is a crime with untold and horrific consequences for these defenseless child victims," U.S. Attorney John Kuhn said. "Protecting children is a national priority of the Department of Justice. My office will continue to prosecute those who harm the most vulnerable and those who perpetuate these crimes through their internet devices."

The Archdiocese released a statement following Pohl's sentencing on Tuesday. It read in part:

"We respect Fr. Pohl's decision to accept responsibility for his actions. We ask for prayers for Fr. Pohl, for his family, and for the St. Margaret Mary Parish community.

"Archbishop Joseph Kurtz placed Father Pohl on administrative leave as pastor of St. Margaret Mary Parish in August of 2015 after the Cyber Crimes Unit of the FBI executed a search warrant of his property to determine if photos that he took, viewed or possessed included child pornography. Fr. Pohl subsequently resigned as pastor.

"The Archdiocese has cooperated with law enforcement officials during their investigation."

While Pohl has been relieved of his duties, he remains a priest not having been formally laicized.

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