Priest removed from church after sex scandal

KGO-TV ABC San Francisco/June 9, 2006

An Episcopal priest was removed as pastor of an East Bay church Friday -- two weeks after the ABC7 I-Team revealed his history of sexual misconduct with parishioners, including a 14-year-old girl.

This has been a terribly difficult two weeks for the congregation at St. John's in Clayton. They were split over what should happen to the priest because of his sexual misconduct in the 1970's. But now it's over.

After 25 years, John Bennison is no longer pastor at St. John's Episcopal Church in Clayton. It was the Bishop of Los Angeles who suspended him because the sexual misconduct happened in that diocese in the 1970's.

Julia: "He robbed her of her youth."

Julia's daughter was sexually abused by Bennison starting when the girl was 14, often in the St. Mark's Church office in Upland in the choir loft -- and it continued for four years.

Julia's not using her last name to protect her daughter's identity, and today, we broke the news to her that Bennison's being removed from ministry.

Julia, victim's mother: "Oh, it's vindication at last, you know. It is wonderful to feel that she has been believed. I have been believed."

Church documents show that even though he was married, Bennison had sexual relationships with other vulnerable women at St. Mark's, including a 35-year-old mother of three going through a divorce.

The behavior continued at All Saints By The Sea in Santa Barbara with a 21-year-old who went to Bennison for marriage counseling. The documents also show he paid for an abortion for an 18-year-old girl with church money.

Bennison even took a 19-year-old from the church youth group he led to bed with his first wife.

Muriel, Bennison victim: "Being young, I was still used to doing what someone in authority tells you to do. You know, you don't think of saying no."

Muriel asked us not to use her last name or show her face. She's concerned about the repercussions of speaking out. One time when they were alone, Muriel says the priest tied her face down on the bed and forced himself on her.

Muriel, Bennison victim: "I did tell him 'no'. I did tell him I didn't like it, but he did it anyway. And then afterwards, he'd be all, 'I'm sorry, but I couldn't help myself.'"

Through his secretary, Bennison declined to comment on the complaints or his suspension today. But it came as welcome news to the man who's been organizing protests at St. John's, by the Survivors Network Of Those Abused By Priests.

Joey Piscatelli, clergy abuse activist: "We're really happy for the victims. They're finally seeing justice after all these years. We're proud of them for coming forward."

Joey Piscatelli says the Bishop of California, San Francisco's William Swing, should have removed the priest after a church investigation in 1993 revealed all the complaints.

Swing put out a letter last week, finally calling on Bennison to resign. The reason? "Nothing is to be gained by feeding the media." Swing praised Bennison for "his unblemished record of conduct here."

But the I-Team has checked the file from Bennison's second divorce. It shows that just two years ago his wife had to go to court to get him to pay child support. He was $2,600 behind, even though he was making the payments on his Porsche Boxster.

The file also shows Bennison's oldest daughter petitioned the court to live with her mother full-time, citing what she called the priest's "fits of temper ... which at times frighten me."

Cathy Pinnell: "I was shocked, I was outraged."

Cathy Pinnell was St. John's Church school director. Bennison performed her wedding ceremony.

She's angry that Bishop Swing knew all the sordid details and did nothing.

Cathy Pinnell, former St. John's parishioner: "They allowed him to continue in the same role. It's just absurd. It makes me sick."

Bishop Swing refused to be interviewed for this story. The final details of Bennison's departure are being worked out. The bishop of Los Angeles has given him the choice of renouncing his vows voluntarily or being kicked out -- what the church calls "deposed." Either way, he's gone from St. John's.

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