18 Dec 2010

Episcopal bishop who covered up youth minister's sex abuse of minor reinstated due to church time limits

The News Tribune - Tacoma, Washington August 5, 2010

Episcopal Church reinstates Diocese head after abuse cover-up case

by David O'Reilly | The Philadelphia Inquirer

Nearly three years after the Episcopal Church suspended him for covering up his brother's sexual abuse of a minor girl, Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. has been restored as head of the Diocese of Pennsylvania.

In a ruling released Thursday, a church appeals panel reversed a lower church court's 2008 order that Bennison be defrocked and permanently removed from the helm of the 55,000-member diocese, comprising Philadelphia, Montgomery, Bucks, Delaware, and Chester Counties.

Although Bennison badly mishandled his brother's prolonged sexual abuse of a teenager in his California parish during the 1970s, the appeals court concluded, the church's statute of limitations on such wrongdoing had expired after 10 years.

"We find that (Bennison) committed conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy," the eight-member panel of bishops wrote. But "because the statute of limitations has run out ... we have no choice under the canons of the church but to reverse the judgment of the trial court that (he) is guilty."

Bennison, 66, described himself as "very gratified" in a teleconference call from Michigan, where he is vacationing. He plans to return to his duties as bishop Aug. 16.

"I hope I am a changed person," he said, adding that his immediate goal was to listen to the men and women who have led the diocese since his suspension in October 2007. He said he would likely devote more attention to the spiritual affairs of the diocese than to its finances or administration.

"My main reason for coming back is that I think I have something to offer along those lines ... preaching and teaching," he said.

Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, national head of the denomination, had no comment on the ruling. The local diocesan standing committee, which has handled administrative matters in Bennison's absence, called on members to keep him "in your prayers." Bishop Paul Michel conducted sacramental duties during Bennison's suspension.

Bennison became bishop of the five-county diocese in 1998. He is allowed to serve until Nov. 30, 2015, when he turns 72.

In its original presentment, or indictment, church leaders charged Bennison with two counts of "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy" for failing to respond to signs that his brother John was abusing a girl - 14 when the relationship began - in their parish near Los Angeles in the 1970s. Charles Bennison was rector, and John Bennison was his youth minister.

The church also faulted Charles Bennison for failing to inform the girl's parents and church or civil authorities when he learned of the affair, and for not adequately counseling or comforting the girl.

After a four-day trial in July 2008 in Philadelphia - including anguished testimony from the victim and Charles Bennison's insistence that he had handled the affair adequately - a seven-member Court for the Trial of a Bishop ruled unanimously that he be permanently removed, or deposed, as diocesan bishop.

It also ordered him stripped of his ordained status as a bishop and a priest.

During the appeals process, begun in 2009, he retained his ordained status but remained "inhibited," or suspended. The Court for the Review of a Trial of a Bishop, which convened in Wilmington, heard oral arguments in May.

Bennison's attorney, James A. Pabarue, insisted that the statute of limitations had expired. Lawrence White, the church's attorney, was equally emphatic that the statute did not apply to anything related to child sex abuse, including a cover-up.

The appeals court sided with Pabarue and noted that Bennison was never charged with child molestation or immorality.

Although he only learned of the decision Wednesday evening, Bennison was officially restored as diocesan head July 28, when the bishops of the review court signed their ruling.

Bennison has long contended that some diocesan and denominational leaders, unhappy with his leadership, were using the abuse cover-up as a pretext to remove him. "This process should never have begun," he said Thursday.

Many clergy and laity in the diocese publicly complained that he spent millions of diocesan endowment funds in a failed effort to build a retreat center and children's summer camp. His defrocking of the Rev. David Moyer, a conservative rector in Rosemont who publicly criticized his liberal policies and barred him from his parish, was also controversial.

Before the 2007 indictment, all 10 members of the diocesan standing committee and all the deans of the diocese had called for his resignation.

Last month, Pabarue asked the church to drop the charges against his client in view of revelations that a former presiding bishop of the church, Edmond L. Browning, had failed to report or adequately investigate another bishop's sexual abuse of several minor girls.

That scandal began to unfold July 11 when Bishop Sean Rowe, head of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, announced on his diocesan website that nine women had recently told him that the late Bishop Donald Davis - head of that diocese from 1976 to 1991 - had sexually abused them as children.

Browning was told of Davis' abuse in 1993 and the following year asked him to resign from the House of Bishops, refrain from public ministry, and seek counseling, which Davis did. Browning, however, never notified civil authorities or conducted an investigation.

Retired since 1997 and living in Oregon, Browning did not respond to requests for comment.

Bennison said Thursday that his first order of business when returning to his office would be to meet with Michel, the interim diocesan head.

He said he had not yet scheduled a meeting with the standing committee, but praised its work during the last two years and nine months. He was praying, he said, for "reconciliation and healing" within the diocese.

This article was found at:



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