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-old affair, 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 found guilty in August of ``immorality and conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy'' by a nine-member panel of bishops. The court met again last month in Minneapolis to decide whether Jones had already been properly disciplined.

In a 26-page ruling issued Dec. 8, the court found Jones' decision to take a leave of absense and undergo counseling was a voluntary decision 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 any punishment on Jones, and the decision for time-off and counseling was a pastoral one.

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

The case stems from an affair between Jones and a female parishioner while he was rector of a Kentucky parish. Jones admitted the affair in 1993 and a year later, Jones' churches in Montana rejected a call for his resignation.

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

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

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

The Rt. Rev. Edward W. Jones, the retired bishop of Indianapolis who presided at the trial, said in a statement the bishop's submission to counseling ``did not preclude the church or the complaintant from proceeding with formal disciplinary action'' under church law.

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

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