KEARNEY -- The Kearney man accused of possessing and distributing child pornography has been removed from any association with the Boy Scouts of America.
Joseph J. Benz, 52, an award-winning University of Nebraska at Kearney psychology professor, is charged in Buffalo County Court with three counts of felony distribution of child pornography and three counts of felony possession of child porn. He was arrested Wednesday night at his home after a search warrant was executed there Tuesday night.
Benz, a full-time professor, also has been relieved of his summer teaching duties at UNK where he has taught since 1989.
“Obviously we are very concerned about the situation and we're cooperating fully with the authorities,” said Kelly Bartling, UNK's assistant vice chancellor of communications and community relations. “We will wait for any outcome in the courts before making any personnel decisions.”
A search of one of Benz's home computer uncovered more than 20,000 questionable image files, according to the State Attorney General's Office. The investigation of at least two other computers continues.
Court records detailing the case have been sealed.
Authorities haven't said whether they made requests to examine or remove computers from Benz's UNK office, but Bartling said school officials are cooperating fully.
Benz's overall status with UNK depends on the outcome of the criminal investigation, Bartling said. Another staff member will take over teaching his summer class.
"At this time, we are awaiting an outcome in the judicial process, and the only thing we can do at this point is relieve him of his teaching duties pending the investigation," she said. "We'll act on his permanent status when we know the outcome of the charges."
Benz earned bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
According to UNK's website, Benz's research interests include human jealousy, technology and teaching and social behavior of sandhill cranes. In 2006, he won the Pratt-Heins award for teaching. He was named honors teacher of the year in 1994 and has won the university's Creative Teaching Award five times.
Benz has been removed locally and nationally from the Boy Scout organization and won't be allowed back in. His membership and all of his privileges were also revoked, and he has been placed on the Scouts' ineligible volunteer list, said David Plond, CEO of the Overland Trails Park Boy Scout Council in Grand Island.
"I'm very disappointed and very shocked. As soon as I found out Thursday, I removed him immediately from our program," he said.
Benz has been with the Boy Scouts for more than 10 years as a Scout leader, but for the last five years has served as a council Training Committee member and trained other adult leaders in 10 counties in central Nebraska, including Buffalo County. He was also fully trained in the Boy Scout youth protection program.
"He had had no direct involvement with the youths for about five years," Plond said.
During Benz's arraignment hearing Thursday in Buffalo County Court, Judge Gerry Jorgensen read Benz the charges against him and their possible penalties. Benz's attorney, John Rademacher of Kearney, asked Jorgensen for a reasonable bond for his client because Benz suffers from significant medical conditions and is scheduled for surgery in two weeks. Benz appeared in court in a wheelchair while wearing an orange jail jumpsuit.
Rademacher said Benz grew up in Omaha and has lived in Kearney for 24 years and poses no flight risk. Jorgensen set bond at $10,000 cash.
Benz posted bond Thursday evening and is free. He is scheduled to appear in court in June.
If convicted, and if he isn't placed on probation, Benz faces 11 to 190 years in prison.
County Attorney Shawn Eatherton has worked several semesters as an adjunct professor in UNK's criminal justice department. Because of that conflict of interest, the Attorney General's Office has been appointed to prosecute Benz.
"Each time a pornographic image of a child is traded online, the child is re-victimized," Attorney General Jon Bruning said in a statement. "We will do everything in our power to ensure he is held accountable for this appalling exploitation."
World-Herald staff writers Kevin Cole and Alissa Skelton contributed to this report.