Beliefnet News

Religion News Service- June 27, 2008
PHILADELPHIA — An Episcopal Church court on Thursday (June 26) unanimously found Bishop Charles E. Bennison guilty of not responding appropriately to sexual abuse committed by his brother against a teenage girl more than three decades ago.
The 64-year-old Bennison, who has led the Philadelphia-based Diocese of Pennsylvania since 1998, was convicted by the nine-member panel of “conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.”
The panel of five bishops, two clergy and two laypeople will now decide the bishop’s punishment, which can range from an admonishment to ousting him from the clergy.
As a married youth minister at Bennison’s parish in Upland, Calif., in the early 1970s, his 24-year-old brother, John Bennison, initiated a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl that continued for more than three years.
Charles Bennison walked in on two encounters between his brother and the girl in church offices and Sunday school rooms at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, the victim, now 50, testified in the four-day trial.
In 1975, Charles Bennison presented his brother for ordination to the priesthood. After sexual relationships with several other women, the younger Bennison renounced his orders, was reinstated, and finally renounced them again in 2006.
Six of the nine members of the Church Court for the Trial of a Bishop — a required two-thirds majority — also voted to convict Bennison for “suppressing” what he knew until the abuse became public in 2006.
In his defense, the bishop testified that he had not known about the abuse until a few years after it started, and when he confronted his brother, the younger Bennison denied the allegations.
Bennison, one of the church’s most liberal bishops, has been barred from acting as bishop since last fall, when a church review committee presented the two-count indictment against him.
The diocesan Standing Committee, which has been overseeing the diocese since Bennison’s inhibition in November, said in a statement that they share “in the grief of the victims and all whose lives have been impacted by those events.”
“We are proud of the Episcopal Church for holding Bishop Bennison accountable,” said Lawrence White, the lead prosecuting attorney for the Episcopal Church, in a statement.
John McDonald, a spokesman for Bennison’s legal team, said the bishop is “obviously … very disappointed.”
“We plan on appealing this decision and look forward to Bishop Bennison’s exoneration,” the lawyers said in a statement released yesterday.
David Clohessy, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, reported abuse committed by his brother, a Catholic priest, in 2002 and lauded any discipline against a bishop for covering up abuse.
“There’s certainly has never been, and probably never will be, something like this in the Catholic world, but it’s extraordinarly encouraging to see that abuse of a minor is taken seriously,” Clohessy said.
Bennison, the victim and her lawyers have until July 30 to submit suggestions on an appropriate punishment. It is unclear when a sentence will be imposed.
Neva Rae Fox, a spokeswoman for Episcopal Church headquarters in New York, said she knew of only three other such trials in church history.
In 2001, the former bishop of Montana was convicted of a 20-year affair with a parishioner,although he was eventually reinstated to the clergy.
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus