'Candyman' Priest Pleads Guilty

A Roman Catholic priest from suburban St. Louis pleaded guilty Wednesday to possessing child pornography in connection with the FBI's "Operation Candyman" investigation.

The Rev. John P. Hess, 56, entered the guilty plea in federal court. Sentencing was scheduled for July 26. He could face up to five years in prison.

Hess was removed from the Sacred Heart Catholic church in Florissant, Mo., in March after his computer was seized by the FBI in its investigation into child pornography traded over the Internet.

U.S. Attorney Ray Gruender said hundreds of images of child porn were found on the hard drive of Hess' computer.

Gruender spokeswoman Jan Diltz had said repeatedly that Hess was not one of three Missouri men arrested as part of Operation Candyman, a nationwide child pornography sting also announced in March.

But while Hess had never been formally arrested, Gruender said Wednesday that he became a suspect during the Operation Candyman investigation, which centered around an e-mail group in which members traded images of child pornography over the Internet.

Gruender said investigators learned that one of the e-mail addresses belonged to Hess. A hard drive on Hess' computer contained hundreds of images of child porn, including video clips of children involved in sexually explicit conduct, he said.

"If you break the law, you cannot hide in cyberspace," Gruender said.

The plea is the second in less than a week in Missouri cases tied to Operation Candyman. On Friday, James Rader of Hannibal, Mo., pleaded guilty in federal court to two counts of possessing child pornography. He will be sentenced July 19.

The red brick Sacred Heart church, founded by a mostly German-speaking congregation in 1866, sits on a hilltop in north St. Louis County. It includes a school and day-care center.

St. Louis has one of the nation's largest Catholic populations. Pope John Paul II visited the city in January 1999, and Archbishop Justin Rigali worked for years at the Vatican as a top aide to the pope.

The archdiocese here has been hit hard by allegations in the fallout from abuse cases in Boston. Eight St. Louis area priests have resigned or been removed since the archdiocese began a stricter policy against those with "substantiated allegations" of sexual abuse.

A spokesman for the archdiocese said a statement would be released later Wednesday. Rigali addressed the congregation days after Hess was removed, asking parishioners to pray for the priest and apologizing "for any action by any priest which has caused pain or harm to anyone." He said the safety of children is "our highest priority."