WASHINGTON, Dec. 14 (RNS) -- An Episcopal Church court has ruled that the bishop of Montana has not been properly punished for an admitted 17-year-oldaffair, opening the door for Bishop Charles I. Jones to be censured,suspended or removed from office.

Jones, who has led Montana's 48 parishes since 1986, was foundguilty in August of ``immorality and conduct unbecoming a member of theclergy'' by a nine-member panel of bishops. The court met again lastmonth in Minneapolis to decide whether Jones had already been properlydisciplined.

In a 26-page ruling issued Dec. 8, the court found Jones' decisionto take a leave of absense and undergo counseling was a voluntarydecision and he was still subject to church sanction.

The court also found that former Presiding Bishop Edmund Browning,who handled the case in 1993 and 1994, had no authority to impose anypunishment on Jones, and the decision for time-off and counseling was apastoral one.

Jones, the church's lawyer and the victim will now have a chance torecommend a punishment and comment on each other's recommendation. Asentencing hearing will be held Jan. 30 in Charlotte, N.C. Jones wouldalso have a 30-day appeal after a sentence is handed down.

The case stems from an affair between Jones and a female parishionerwhile he was rector of a Kentucky parish. Jones admitted the affair in1993 and a year later, Jones' churches in Montana rejected a call forhis resignation.

In 1997, the church revised its canons to extend the statute oflimitations on cases involving sexual abuse by clergy. It also allowedthe victims to file complaints themselves without charges being filed byother bishops of a committee of lay and clergy members. The woman filedher complaint on Jan. 8, 1998.

In last month's trial in Minneapolis, Jones' lawyer argued thebishop had already been punished for the affair by taking a leave ofabsense and undergoing counseling. He said a second punishment wouldamount to ``double jeopardy'' for Jones.

The court disagreed, saying Jones knew his treatment was pastoraland not punitive, according to the Episcopal News Service. In addition,Jones resumed his duties after only three months instead of therecommended one year.

The Rt. Rev. Edward W. Jones, the retired bishop of Indianapolis whopresided at the trial, said in a statement the bishop's submission tocounseling ``did not preclude the church or the complaintant fromproceeding with formal disciplinary action'' under church law.

In a Dec. 11 letter reported by Episcopal News Service, Jones wroteto the clergy in his diocese, saying, ``I appreciate your continuedlove, support and prayers for me, my family and the Diocese of Montanaas we seek to do God's will. Please feel free to share this informationwith those whom you deem appropriate. May God's blessings be upon all ofus in this Advent/Christmas season.''