Pennsylvania Episcopal bishop ousted in cover-up


Associated Press

October 3 , 2008

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — An Episcopal bishop in Pennsylvania has been defrocked after a church panel found him guilty of covering up his brother's sexual assaults of a teenage girl in the 1970s.

Charles E. Bennison Jr., 64, deserved to be ousted from the clergy because of his "very significant failures to fulfill his responsibilities" and "a fundamental lack of professional awareness," the special Court for the Trial of a Bishop said in documents released Friday.

The unanimous nine-person panel of bishops, priests and church members chose the harshest sentence for Bennison, who has been 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 court finds that even today (Bennison) has not shown that he comprehends the nature, significance and effect of his conduct and has not accepted responsibility and repented for his conduct and the substantial negative effects of that conduct," the ecclesiastical panel wrote.

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

The victim, now 50, said she had no doubt Bennison was aware of the sexual contact between her and his married brother, John Bennison, which started when she was 14 and continued for more than four years.

She testified that she turned from a self-described nerd who enjoyed school, sewing and church into a young woman battling depression, suicidal thoughts and alcohol abuse.

The bishop's attorneys said the church did not have any guidelines in the 1970s for reporting sexual abuse and Bennison handled the situation in the best way he knew how.

"We find a sentence of deposition now to be utterly immoral in light of the bishop's four decades of faithful service to the Episcopal Church," his attorneys said in a statement. "We fully intend to pursue a reconsideration of the sentence, and ultimately, an appeal of the entire case."

Bennison testified that he confronted his brother, who denied any wrongdoing, and decided not to tell the victim's family or pursue an investigation to save the church from scandal and protect the girl, who would have "been regarded as licentious (and) immoral." He also said he didn't know long-swirling rumors about his brother's conduct to be fact until years later.

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

Attorneys for Bennison were not immediately available Friday to comment on the sentence.

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 two years ago.