Beliefnet
WASHINGTON, Feb. 15 (RNS)-- The Episcopal bishop of Montana will be defrocked for his admitted extramarital affair nearly 20 years ago, the harshest punishment available under church law.

A special church court ruled 7-2 Wednesday that the Rt. Rev. Charles I. Jones, the bishop of Montana's 48 parishes since 1986, "has not demonstrated an understanding of or a genuine repentance of the offenses committed" and should lose his ordained status.

Jones was found guilty last August of "immorality and conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy" for his 1981-83 affair with a female parishioner while he was pastor of a church in Kentucky. Previously Jones had admitted to the affair, taken a temporary leave of absence and underwent counseling at the advice of then-Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning.

During the trial, Jones and his lawyer, Ed Curry, had argued Jones had already been punished for his affair and further punishment would amount to "double jeopardy."

The court ruled in December that Jones had not been properly disciplined at the time, and Browning did not have authority to impose any punishment. The court said Jones' decision was voluntary and that Browning's recommendation for counseling was a pastoral one.

In a statement issued by the nine-member court of bishops Wednesday, the court "found a continuing pattern of abusive and exploitative behavior and a risk of future exploitation."

Two members of the court called for lighter sentences, with retired North Carolina Bishop Robert Johnson urging that Jones be publicly reprimanded but not removed from office.

New Hampshire Bishop Douglas Theuner asked for a five-year suspension for Jones, with conditions that he make a public apology and pay at least $40,000 in restitution to the victim. Theuner's proposal ultimately placed Jones' case in the hands of the church's presiding bishop, who would have to decide if Jones were fit to return to ministry.

Some members of the court agreed with Theuner, but could not go along because a suspension would still allow Jones to be involved with the operation of his diocese and they thought his authority should be terminated "altogether," Episcopal News Service reported.

The only other time a church bishop has lost his credentials was in 1924, when Arkansas Bishop William Montgomery Brown was found guilty of heresy for saying that communism had made Christianity irrelevant, according to the church.

Jones now has 30 days to appeal his sentence to a special bishops' appeals court, who could uphold the sentence or modify it. Sources within the church say Jones has already said he will appeal, and is considering legal action against all the parties involved.

Calls to his lawyer were not returned late Thursday.

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