Episcopal Church upholds ouster of Pennsylvania bishop

The Associated Press/Februaary 4, 2009

Philadelphia - An Episcopal Church panel announced on Wednesday that it had upheld its decision to defrock a bishop from Pennsylvania for covering up his brother's sexual assaults of a teenage girl in the 1970s.

The special Court for the Trial of a Bishop rejected a request by Charles E. Bennison Jr. to reduce the sentence, but added that his ouster "does not alter the church's deep and abiding compassion" for him. The nine-person panel of bishops, priests and church members said it hoped the ruling would allow Bennison to seek "reconciliation and peace."

After a four-day trial in June, the panel found Bennison guilty of two counts of "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy."

In October, it unanimously chose the harshest sentence for Bennison, who was bishop of the nation's fifth-largest Episcopal diocese for a decade. He could have faced a reprimand or a temporary suspension of his duties.

The victim, now in her early 50s, testified Bennison knew of the sexual contact between her and his married brother, John Bennison, beginning when she was 14 and continuing for more than four years.

The Associated Press typically does not identify victims of sexual abuse.

In a statement, Bennison's attorneys said they would appeal what they called an "unwarranted sentence" and "a grave injustice against a man who has served the Episcopal Church faithfully for four decades."

At his trial, Bennison testified that he confronted his brother, who denied any wrongdoing, and remained silent to save the church from scandal and to protect the girl's reputation. He also said he didn't know long-swirling rumors about his brother's conduct to be fact until years later.

The panel rejected Bennison's assertion he handled the situation in the best way he knew how in an era when the church did not have protocols for reporting sexual abuse.

The bishop's failure to stop the abuse, alert the teen's parents, contact secular authorities or provide pastoral care to the victim and her family "has never been and is not now an acceptable protocol for responding to sexual abuse," the ruling said.

Bennison was chosen in 1998 to head the Pennsylvania diocese, which has 53,000 members in Philadelphia and its suburbs. At the time of the abuse, he was rector of St. Mark's Church in Upland, Calif., in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and his brother was a lay minister there.

John Bennison, who never faced criminal charges, left the priesthood in 2006.

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