Episcopal Bishop Hears Some Call for Him to Resign
Delegates Were Angry over Charles E. Bennison Jr.'s Spending and Cover-Up of His Brother's Sex Abuse
By David O'Reilly
November 12, 2006
Episcopal Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. deflected a call for his resignation at yesterday's annual diocesan convention, despite angry denunciations of his fiscal practices and the cover-up decades ago of his brother's sex abuse.
Last week, the diocesan standing committee asked the denomination's presiding bishop to investigate Bennison for spending more than $10 million of diocesan money without the committee's approval.
Yesterday, he sought to stave off criticism early by telling delegates that he "never" spent any diocesan money "without the approbation of the requisite body."
Bennison then apologized once again for his "extremely misguided" failure to report his brother John's abuse of a minor in the California parish where they both worked in the 1970s.
He also acknowledged that he had given several erroneous accounts of his handling of the matter since The Inquirer reported on the abuse and cover-up last month.
But an unscheduled motion from the floor called for "expanded education around clergy sexual abuse... and the damage caused by long-term cover-up."
This was followed immediately by an amendment by the Rev. Judith Beck, a longtime critic of Bennison's, demanding that he be "held accountable" for concealing his brother's abuse of the teen three decades ago.
In the 1970s, Charles Bennison was rector of St. Mark's Parish outside Los Angeles. In 1972, he hired John, then about 24, to serve as parish youth minister.
"We have to learn more about the abuse and lies... in this diocese," Beck declared.
She was followed by the Rev. Pamela Nesbitt, a deacon and psychotherapist, who denounced Bennison for failing to report his brother's abuse of the 14-year-old parishioner, saying he did so to further his clerical career.
"The first thing you can do is resign," Nesbitt said, prompting shouts of "No!" from some in the audience and scattered applause.
Moments later, the Rev. Marek Zabriskie, rector of St. Thomas Church-Whitemarsh, called for Bennison's "immediate resignation," to more applause and shouts of "No."
"Your amendment is not germane to the main motion," Bennison told Zabriskie. William C. Bullitt, the convention's parliamentarian and the former diocesan chancellor, concurred.
Delegates nevertheless debated both amendments for about 20 minutes, and several stunned the crowd by describing sexual assaults they had suffered when young.
"I want to speak in favor," said the Rev. Sunny Hallanan, rector of St. James Parish in Collegeville, who told how she was the victim of date rape 28 years earlier.
"Listening to the bishop admit... that he told untruths" about his handling of his brother's abuse "brings back my anger and my fear," she said, adding that "abuse is about misuse of power."
Then the Rev. Timothy Safford, rector of Old Christ Church in Center City, stepped to the microphone and told the several hundred delegates he had been raped as a boy by a church worker, and was "not satisfied with the level of justice I've received."
Safford said he thought that Bennison's leadership and mishandling of his brother's abuse were topics worthy of "debate and resolution," but that the call for a diocesan study of clergy sex abuse "should not turn into a referendum on the leadership."
Bennison eventually called for a vote on Beck's amendment asking that he be held accountable for covering up his brother's abuse. About half of the delegates appeared to hold up green cards signaling a "yes" vote, and about half held up red "no" cards.
"The no's have it," Bennison declared without a formal count, and the motion was defeated.
The delegates then voted nearly unanimously to authorize a study of the impact of clergy sex abuse and cover-up.
Bennison said afterward that he had "enjoyed" the convention because "the community is trying to find middle ground on the issues." He called it a "fairly good day for the diocese," which, he said, "went home healthy."
Bennison, who has been bishop of the five-county diocese for nearly 10 years, said he would not have resigned even if a majority of the delegates had asked him to do so. "I do not have any plans to resign," he said.
The convention, which met at its Philadelphia Cathedral in University City, approved a program budget of $3.45 million for 2007. Because it did not complete all the business on the agenda, however, it voted to reconvene in the next 60 days.
Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or email@example.com.
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