Episcopal Church convicts Pa. bishop of cover-up

The Associated Press/June 26, 2008

Philadelphia - An Episcopal bishop was found guilty by a church panel of covering up his brother's assaults of a teenage girl in the 1970s.

Charles E. Bennison Jr., 64, was convicted of two counts of engaging in conduct unbecoming of a member of the clergy, according to his attorneys and the church verdict, dated Tuesday and released Thursday. He could be reprimanded, suspended or ousted from the church.

"We are proud of the Episcopal Church for holding Bishop Bennison accountable, and for using an open and transparent process that allowed the truth to come to light," church attorney Lawrence White said in a statement Thursday.

It was not immediately clear when the sentence would be handed down for Bennison, bishop of the nation's fifth-largest Episcopal diocese. The special Court for the Trial of a Bishop must wait at least 30 days before handing down a sentence, and Bennison's attorneys said they will request a hearing before sentencing.

The victim, now 50, testified during a four-day ecclesiastical trial this month that the abuse by the bishop's brother, John Bennison, happened three to four times a week for several years. She testified that an encounter in a Sunday school classroom and another in a church office in 1973 were witnessed by Charles Bennison, who "opened the door, took a look at us, turned around and walked out."

At the time, Charles Bennison was rector of St. Mark's Church in Upland, Calif., in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and his brother was a married lay minister there.

The Associated Press generally does not disclose the names of sexual abuse victims.

The bishop testified that he heard rumors of sexual impropriety and confronted his brother, who was about to leave the California parish where he was a youth counselor. Bishop Bennison said he kept quiet to protect the girl and the church from scandal, and because he didn't know the rumor to be fact until years later.

Attorneys for the church suggested that Bennison kept quiet to advance his career. They accused him of "selective amnesia" and other psychological phenomena that he described in his own 1997 book on the effects of harboring secrets about clergy sex abuse.

Charles Bennison's legal team, led by attorney James Pabarue, declined to comment on the verdict but said in a statement that it would appeal.

"The appropriateness of his actions is reflected by the actions of numerous Episcopal bishops, priests, officials and lay members who knew of Bishop Bennison's conduct as early as 1979 and who for 28 years never felt that his conduct was improper (or) warranted charges being brought against him during that time," the statement read.

Pabarue has said the young rector handled the situation as best he could with his limited experience and a lack of church guidelines, particularly in an era when views about sexual abuse were not as enlightened as today.

Bennison was ordered to cease all church duties in November.

A church indictment, called a presentment, charged that Bennison failed to investigate his brother's actions and protect the victim. The presentment also charged that Bennison knew about the abuse but didn't halt the 1974 ordination of his brother.

John Bennison, who never faced criminal charges, left the priesthood two years ago.

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