Episcopal court rules to defrock Pennsylvania bishop

Philadelphia Inquirer/October 8, 2008

A special court of the Episcopal Church has ruled unanimously that Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. should be removed as head of the Diocese of Pennsylvania and defrocked as a priest for concealing his brother's sexual abuse of a minor decades ago.

"The court finds that [Bennison] should no longer serve as a member of the clergy of the church," the nine-judge panel declared in its sentence, which it handed down on Monday and made public yesterday.

Bennison, 64, was not available yesterday for comment, but his attorney said he would appeal.

The appeals process will likely take months, said diocesan chancellor Edward Rehill, during which time Bennison will retain his status as an ordained clergyman and suspended bishop of the 53,000-member diocese, composed of Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester Counties.

Bennison has been suspended or "inhibited" as a bishop since last October, when the church ordered his trial.

In June, the Court for the Trial of a Bishop met for four days in Philadelphia. In July, the panel found Bennison guilty on two charges of "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy" for failing to protect a teenage minor girl in his California parish in the 1970s from the predations of his brother, John, the parish youth minister.

The court, composed of five bishops, two priests and two lay persons, could have reprimanded or suspended Bennison, but imposed the most severe sentence possible: permanent removal from all holy orders in the Episcopal Church USA.

"The damages caused by [Bennison's] offenses is severe," the judges said, noting that "from his testimony at trial and subsequent submissions to the court" he "has not accepted responsibility and repented for his conduct. . . ."

In a statement, his attorney, James A. Pabarue, said he was "extremely disappointed" by the "utterly immoral" and "completely wrong" verdict.

The family of John Bennison's victim yesterday called the sentence "proportional and fair," and said it "sends a welcome signal that the church doesn't tolerate the kinds of misconduct that were described so compellingly at trial."

The family also said it was "saddened that Bishop Bennison's long period of service to the church ends on this note."

Bennison's church career is not necessarily ended by the verdict, however.

He has the right to petition the trial court for a modification of its sentence. If it declines, the case will go to a church appeals court composed of nine bishops.

That court has the right to reverse either or both of the guilty verdicts against Bennison handed down by the trial court. It may also sustain those verdicts but reduce his sentence.

Those reductions could include a reprimand, under which he would return to his duties as bishop. The appeals court could also suspend him permanently as head of the diocese, in which case he would nonetheless retain the title of bishop. A limited suspension would allow him to return as diocesan bishop at a prescribed date.

His suspension remains in effect throughout the appeal, during which he may not exercise any bishop's functions.

Bennison's predecessor, Bishop Allen Bartlett, who has been serving as interim bishop for liturgical and ceremonial purposes, announced this week that he would stay on in that role through June.

The 10-member diocesan standing committee, which has functioned as the office of bishop since Bennison's inhibition, will continue in that role through the appeal, according to the Rev. Bill Wood, its past president.

Speaking for the committee, Wood yesterday said, "Our prayers go out to the Bennsion family and to the diocese."

The standing committee has feuded with Bennison over a variety of issues, including his decision to appropriate millions of dollars of diocesan endowment funds to build a summer camp and retreat center.

Two years ago, it called unanimously for his resignation - Bennison refused - and last year petitioned the presiding bishop to initiate a church trial to remove him.

Starting Oct. 20, Bennison will also be defendant in a separate civil trial.

The Rev. David Moyer, rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, is suing the bishop for damages in Montgomery County Court on the ground that Bennison "fraudulently" defrocked him as a priest without a required church trial.

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