14 Jun 2008

Bishop in abuse case: 'I can't remember what I've forgotten'

Philadelphia Daily News
June 13, 2008


For much of the 32 hours of witness testimony and lawyer statements this week, the audience's view of suspended Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. was restricted to the shiny bald spot in the back of his head.

Yesterday, the last day of his church trial, spectators got a glimpse of the 64-year-old bishop's perspective on his brother John's sexual abuse of a teen-age girl as he testified - sometimes forgetting the order of critical points of the case.

"I can't remember what I've forgotten," he answered during questioning by church attorney Ralph A. Jacobs.

His response elicited a few soft chuckles from the crowd inside the Center City Marriott.

"I do think I have an amnesia problem," he later stammered. "I don't remember a lot of this."

Bennison, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, is accused of failing to report his brother's conduct 35 years ago.

After Charles testified that John should not have been ordained a priest, Jacobs asked why Charles had not prevented the ordination. Charles had presented John to their father, the late Bishop Charles Bennison Sr., who ordained him. "Well, I was hoping that it would work out," Bennison said in a low voice.

The church lawyers introduced a book written by Charles Bennison in 1997 that they claimed shows the hypocrisy of his comments.

"Congregations that harbor secrets surrounding events in their collective lives - such as sexual or financial misconduct on the part of one of the clergy experience cognitive dissonance between reality and what is said about it," Bennison wrote. "Within the life of the congregation, secrecy becomes toxic."

Bennison testified that he had not viewed the sexual affair between then-14-year-old Martha Alexis and his brother as abuse, but more as consensual sin on both of their parts.

He added that people in Upland, Calif., the location of the church in which much of the abuse occurred, would have shared the same view and would have persecuted Alexis if he had made the affair public.

He said that he would have reported everything if it happened today. "We'll never know," he said. "We'll never know what would have happened if we ran another tape."

Bennison's lawyers argued that the bishop's actions may have been insufficient because his clerical training did not include sexual-abuse awareness and the church lacked a written abuse policy at the time.

Jacobs dismissed the argument by saying that "common sense" should have guided Bennison.

"He did not need some 21st-century detection protocol," Jacobs said. "How hard is it?"

Before the end of the day, Bennison's camp moved to have the case dismissed, contending that it had not been brought within the statute of limitations of canon law, which requires charges against clergy to be presented within five years of the offense.

Bennison's attorney James A. Pabarue suggested during his closing statements that the Alexis family was being "used" by some of the bishop's enemies in an opportunistic attempt to get him out of office.

But Maggie Thompson, the ex-wife of the bishop's brother, who had helped expose the abuse, said: "The evidence spoke for itself. We're all very pleased to be able to have this chance to be heard."

A nine-person panel will determine whether Bishop Bennison is guilty of "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy" within the next 30 days.

If the panel rules against him, it could take months to agree on any punishment. *

Staff writer Joshua Mellman contributed to this report

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