12 Jun 2008

Episcopal Bishop's very public trial a first for the church

Philadelphia Daily News
June 12, 2008

by Ronnie Polaneczky | Daily News Columnist

SOMETHING extraordinary is going on at the Philadelphia Marriott Hotel: A bishop is being called on the carpet for not alerting church authorities, parents or police that a church youth-group leader at his church was having sex with a teenage member.

More extraordinary still is that the proceedings are public. Anyone can enter the Marriott ballroom and see the robed, nine-member jury of Episcopal leaders presiding over the church trial of Bishop Charles Bennison.

They can wince as the victim, now 50, haltingly describes her childhood abuse as "degrading."

They can hear her abuser's ex-wife describe the horror she felt when she realized her former spouse was actually a sexual abuser, not a philanderer.

They can watch as a distraught Bennison explains why he didn't help the young victim.

No matter what the trial's outcome, its transparency alone makes it historic.

How ironic that it's unfolding in a city where Catholic bishops responsible for covering up past sex abuse in the Philly Archdiocese have yet to be held publicly accountable by name, by their church, for the pain their complicity perpetuated.

Bennison was rector of a California church in the 1970s, where his brother, John Bennison, was a youth minister. Charles Bennison, now bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, has admitted that he knew his brother was in a sexual relationship with a then-14-year-old girl named Martha Alexis.

He also has admitted he did nothing to shield her from further harm. Forget alerting church authorities or the police. Bennison didn't even tell Alexis' parents - those in the best position to protect her - what was happening to their daughter. Only later, when Alexis sought counseling, was she able to tell them herself.

John Bennison eventually moved on to another church and became involved in additional sexual misconduct, which might have been prevented had his brother had the courage to speak for the voiceless.

Charles Bennison is now charged with "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy" for his inaction. If found guilty, he could, among other things, be forbidden from ever again holding church office.

Bennison, it must be noted, had his detractors long before the charges against him came to light. Some argue that his current mess is the result of actions by those who have long wanted him gone, for political reasons having nothing to do with the sex-abuse charges.

Which is beside the point. No matter how the charges came to light, they need to be addressed. They're too serious not to be.

But if the Episcopal Church was unconscionably slow to address the abuse that Charles Bennison acknoweldges took place, the church is to be commended for not being too cowed by his lofty rank to hold him accountable for what any caring adult - let alone a spiritual shepherd - would have done in similar circumstances.

There's another irony in Bennison's trial: It's scheduled to conclude today - the same day that hearings into childhood sexual abuse were supposed to have begun in Harrisburg.

I've written before how the House Judiciary Committee has refused to hold hearings on House Bill 1137, The Child Victims' Act of PA, which would give childhood sex-abuse victims until age 50 to bring civil suits against their abusers (the current age limit is 30). It would also open a two-year window to allow childhood sex-abuse victims to file a civil suit when the statute of limitations on their case had otherwise expired.

The bill's prime sponsor, Rep. Lisa Bennington, was thrilled when Rep. Louise Bishop offered to hold related hearings today in the Children and Youth Committee, which she heads, so victims could be heard.

But last week, Bishop canceled the hearings, citing scheduling conflicts. She has no plans to reschedule.

"I am appalled that no one in power in the Democratic Party will assist us in giving a voice to these victims," Bennington said yesterday. "It's unfathomable."

But, sadly, not unexpected, given how easily and often those in power - whether they're lay or spiritual leaders - cave when it comes to doing the right thing.

Which makes the Episcopal Church's willingness to hold Charles Bennison's very public trial even more extraordinary.

So if you want to watch history in the making, head to the Marriott today and sit a while.

It could be a long time before it gets made this way again.

This article was found at:

http://www.philly.com/dailynews/
local/20080612_Ronnie_Polaneczky__
Bishop_s_very_public_trial_a_first_
for_the_church.html

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