Episcopalians speak for and against Pennsylvania bishop

Philadelphia Inquirer/August 13, 2008

Episcopal Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. should be removed from church office, according to the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA and the victim of Bennison's brother's sexual abuse.

But a special church court - which in June found Bennison guilty of failing to protect a girl in his parish from his brother John's sexual abuse decades ago - has also received dozens of letters from Bennison's admirers asking that he be allowed to continue to lead the five-county Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania he has headed since 1998.

"His ministry is a gift the Episcopal Church so desperately needs," wrote one.

In October, the Episcopal Church suspended Bennison, 62, on two charges of "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy" and called for a trial.

The nine-member Court for the Trial of a Bishop, which heard testimony here in mid-June, found him guilty days later by a unanimous vote. It will soon decide whether to reprimand Bennison, extend his suspension, or permanently "depose" him from ministry.

"Bishop Bennison should not be permitted to resume his episcopate in the Diocese of Pennsylvania under any circumstances," Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori wrote the court in late July.

"His credibility and lack of appropriate pastoral sensitivity . . . demonstrate he could not effectively lead the Diocese" or any other diocese "now or in the future," Schori argued.

Martha Alexis, who was a 14-year-old member of Bennison's Upland, Calif., parish when John Bennison began a five-year sexual relationship with her, also asked the court to depose Charles Bennison.

In a lengthy letter to the court that echoed her trial testimony, Alexis argued that Bennison's failure to intervene in his brother's abuse or minister to her afterward were nearly as damaging as the abuse itself.

"I trusted him to be my pastor, and he abandoned me," she wrote. "John distorted and perverted my understanding of God, but Charles stole the Church from me."

Alexis' widowed mother has also written the court, saying that while she and her late husband had "loved" Bennison, the trial forced her to recognize that he had "put his career [and] fear of scandal" ahead of their daughter.

"The value of one soul outweighs the many good works of the Bishop," she wrote in a nine-page victim impact statement. Bennison "should not be permitted to remain as a Bishop in the Episcopal Church."

The 10-member diocesan standing committee, which has feuded with Bennison over issues of trust and diocesan finances for several years, urged the court to bar Bennison from ever again serving as a member of the clergy.

Bennison's admirers have also weighed in on his behalf, sending at least 29 letters to the court urging clemency.

One woman described how, as a young pastor in California, Bennison's "faith and strength bolstered us" when their baby son died suddenly. She called Bennison a "godly man" and noted he had created a prison ministry, a homeless shelter, and a grammar school for the parish.

The Rev. Richard C. Alton, former rector of St. Mark's parish in Center City, wrote to say that his own sexual abuse in childhood had made him acutely sensitive to abuse issues. He said he was confident Bennison strove to "keep all the people of the diocese of Pennsylvania safe from harm."

"There are, frankly, not very many people who possess Charles' unique combination of intellectual, personal, pastoral and spiritual gifts," wrote the Rev. Gary R. Hall, dean and president of Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. He urged the judges, five of whom are bishops, to allow Bennison to continue serving as a bishop.

Bennison's lead attorney, James A.A. Pabarue, has petitioned the court to conduct a sentencing hearing that will allow him to present the recommendations of about five Bennison supporters. The court has not announced if it will do so.

In a July 30 memorandum to the court, Pabarue urged the judges not to impose any further punishment on Bennison.

Noting that John Bennison was forced to resign as a parish priest in 2006 when a San Francisco TV station exposed his abuse, Pabarue argued that it was unfair to impose the same sentence on someone who was not the abuser.

Pabarue also reasoned that Bennison's nine-month suspension, his costly public trial, his long service to the church, his remorse, and his assertions that he would handle a similar abuse situation differently today all warranted "an excuse of any sentence."

But Larry White, the Center City attorney representing the Episcopal Church, argued in his memorandum that Bennison had "prolonged and intensified" Alexis' suffering by failing to minister to her.

"Bishop Bennison's misconduct reflected fundamental aspects of his character that render him unfit to serve as a member of the clergy," White concluded. "The appropriate sentence . . . is deposition."

Bennison may appeal the court's guilty verdict and any sentence it imposes.

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