By Mary Frances Schjonberg for Episcopal New Service:
[Episcopal News Service] Eleven months after being barred from performing episcopal acts, an ecclesiastical court has determined that Diocese of Pennsylvania Bishop Charles E. Bennison should be deposed from the ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.
The Court for the Trial of a Bishop, which spent four days in June hearing the case against Bennison, ruled September 30 that deposition was appropriate “in recognition of the nature of the offense and because [Bennison] has failed to demonstrate that he comprehends and takes responsibility for the harm that he has caused.”
Bennison was determined by the court in June of having engaged in conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.
“We are extremely disappointed with the Court’s decision today,” Bennison’s Philadelphia attorneys James A. A. Pabarue and Carolyn Bates Kelly said in a statement emailed to ENS. The statement said that the court’s determination in June “was completely wrong” and that a sentence of deposition would be “utterly immoral in light of the Bishop’s four decades of faithful service to the Episcopal Church.”
“We fully intend to pursue a reconsideration of the sentence, and ultimately, an appeal of the entire case,” Pabarue and Kelly said.
Bennison, 64, faced two counts in a “presentment,” the church’s equivalent of an indictment. The first count of the presentment that formed the basis of the June trial said that 35 years ago when Bennison, as rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Upland, California, failed to respond properly after learning that his brother, John Bennison, a 24-year-old newly-ordained deacon whom he had hired as youth minister, was “engaged in a sexually abusive and sexually exploitive relationship” with a 14-year-old parishioner. The abuse lasted for more than three years.
The presentment also said Charles Bennison failed to discharge his pastoral obligations to the girl, the members of her family, and the members of the parish youth group after he learned of his brother’s behavior.
The second count accused him of suppressing the information about his brother until 2006 when he disclosed publicly what he knew. John Bennison, having once renounced his orders, later successfully sought reinstatement as a priest. He was forced again to renounce his orders in 2006 when knowledge of the abuse became public.
On June 25, the nine-member Episcopal Church’s Court for the Trial of a Bishop unanimously convicted Bennison on the first count and six of the members voted to convict him on the second count. Canon IV.5.25 of the church’s Constitution and Canons requires an affirmative vote of two-thirds of the members of the court.
Bennison, the victim, her mother and brother, Lawrence White (the church attorney who acted as prosecutor for the Episcopal Church) and Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori had until July 30 “to offer matters in excuse or mitigation or to otherwise comment” on the sentence that the court would impose by a two-thirds majority vote. The sentence possibilities ranged from an admonition to deposition.
In its decision September 30, the trial court said that Bennison showed a “fundamental lack of professional awareness” and that his conduct represented “very significant failure to fulfill his responsibilities” as a member of the clergy. The court said Bennison caused “severe” damage to the minor, her family, to other individual victims and to the parish.
“Even today,” the court said, 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.”
Bennison’s attorneys said that the court “ignored the victims’ own testimony under oath, in which they stated that they never wanted Bishop Bennison removed from Holy Orders” and disregarded “the documented remorse Bishop Bennison has repeatedly expressed for the pain the victims suffered.”
“And it has sided with the Bishop’s still unknown accusers and the Presiding Bishop’s biased call for his deposition, turning a blind eye to the overwhelming level of support Bishop Bennison received from clergy and laity during and after the trial,” Pabarue and Kelly said.
They ended their statement by saying that the court’s decision “confirms the fears of many” that “this entire process has been basically engineered to rid the Diocese of Pennsylvania of a Bishop whom some of its members oppose because of his prophetic leadership — and not to provide any comfort or assistance to victims of clergy sexual abuse.”
Bennison has been inhibited from all ordained ministry since October 30, 2007 when Jefferts Schori acted after the Episcopal Church’s Title IV Review Committee issued the two-count presentment against him. The Standing Committee of the diocese consented to the inhibition, as is required by Title IV, Canon 1, Section 6.
The Court for the Trial of a Bishop also issued an order September 30 on three other requests made by Bennison in the run-up to the adjudication of sentence. The court denied Bennison’s request for a hearing on the sentence, saying that it had reviewed written statements that Bennison submitted from five of the six people who would have testified for him as well as statements from 25 other acquaintances, and adding that it had heard extensive testimony during the four-day trial.
The court also rejected the bishop’s request that it disregard the Presiding Bishop’s sentencing recommendation on the grounds that it was prejudicial. The court noted that the canons under which Bennison was brought to trial allow the Presiding Bishop to make such a recommendation.
The members of the court agreed with Bennison’s request that they disregard a sentencing statement from the diocesan Standing Committee because it refers to “alleged misconduct and alleged Canonical Offenses that are not subjects of the Presentment or Trial.” The Standing Committee has twice asked Bennison to resign in a dispute over how he handled the diocesan trust funds.
Bennison now has 30 days to ask for a modification of the sentence. If Bennison makes such a request, the court must hold a hearing, according to Canon IV.5.30(b).
After receiving what is known as the final judgment, Bennison can appeal within 30 days to the Court of Review of the Trial of a Bishop, a different court made up of nine bishops elected by the House of Bishops. Canon IV.6 outlines the appeal process.
The Court for the Trial of a Bishop consists of five bishops, two priests and two adult lay communicants: Bishop Andrew Smith of Connecticut (Chair); Bishop Bruce Caldwell of Wyoming; Bishop Gordon Scruton of Western Massachusetts; Bishop George Wayne Smith of Missouri; Bishop Catherine Waynick of Indianapolis; the Rev. Marjorie Menaul, Diocese of Central Pennsylvania; the Rev. Karen Anita Brown Montagno, Diocese of Massachusetts; Maria Campbell, Birmingham, Alabama; and Jane R. Freeman, Akron, Ohio.