Episcopal Diocese of Pa. Calls for an Inquiry
Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr.'s Handling of Church Finances Is at Issue. A Panel Wants Him Ousted
By David O'Reilly
November 8, 2006
Citing a "total breakdown of trust," the standing committee of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania has asked the denomination's leadership to investigate Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr.'s handling of diocesan finances and remove him from office.
The committee's actions come as Bennison is still trying to quiet critics who have called for his resignation based on his handling of a sex-abuse case involving his brother more than 30 years ago.
The 10-member committee alleges that the bishop has "repeatedly usurped" its authority and "misappropriated" more than $10 million of diocesan assets to develop a summer camp in Maryland and pay diocesan operating expenses.
The Rev. William Wood III, president of the committee, said yesterday the committee was not alleging that Bennison had engaged in embezzlement.
Rather, he said, Bennison had for several years spent the principal or interest from dozens of diocesan endowment funds without the consent of the standing committee.
He said Bennison had spent millions to develop a 618-acre children's summer camp and retreat center in Maryland "that most people [in the diocese] don't want." He said Bennison had failed to mount a promised capital campaign to pay for the camp.
Wood said the committee's lawyers sent signed copies of the complaint to Bennison and to the Most Rev. Katharine Jeffert Schori, who was installed Saturday as presiding bishop.
Bennison did not return a call seeking comment yesterday, but in a recent interview he said the standing committee members had no legal grounds for complaining that he was bypassing them.
About three years ago, he said, he relieved the standing committee of certain fiscal oversight duties and gave them to the diocesan finance and property committee.
He said that committee, which he appoints, has approved his use of endowment funds and all the spending on the camp.
Last year, the annual diocesan convention voted to remove the bishop's authority to appoint the members of the finance and property committee.
The 2006 convention, which is to meet Saturday, will vote on a 2007 budget and choose the new members of the finance and property committee.
Wood said yesterday the committee believed Bennison was acting outside his authority when he stripped the standing committee of its oversight of property and endowments.
The standing committee's complaint, which was filed Friday and made public yesterday, made no mention of recent charges that Bennison concealed his brother John's sexual abuse of a minor in California 30 years ago.
Charles Bennison was rector of the parish where John Bennison worked as a youth minister.
The three-page complaint asks Schori to authorize an investigation that could result in a formal presentment of Bennison - the equivalent of an indictment under church law.
If the investigating panel issues a presentment, a special panel of bishops would form an ecclesiastical court. It could remove him from office if it finds him guilty.
A former rector and seminary professor, Bennison, 62, has been head of the five-county diocese for nearly 10 years.
Diocesan conservatives have long criticized his liberal stances on gay marriage and gay ordination. Some church moderates and liberals have lately been openly critical of his fiscal management and leadership style.
In January, the standing committee voted unanimously to ask him to resign or retire, and it has issued that request at every monthly meeting since. Bennison has refused.
Yesterday, Wood said Bennison's diversion of funds towards the Camp Wapiti project on northern Chesapeake Bay had left the diocese with little money to support poor parishes or operate important ministries.
He also said the standing committee was irked that Bennison had refused to share with its members the management letter that accompanied the 2005 audit of diocesan finances.
In a recent interview, Bennison acknowledged that he had withheld the audit letter from the standing committee, but said he did so because he was not confident the committee members would keep it confidential.
Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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