Bishop Bennison Survives Calls for His Resignation

Living Church Foundation [Philadelphia PA]
November 15, 2006

A coalition of clergy and laity called unsuccessfully for the resignation of the Rt. Rev. Charles E. Bennison, Jr., during the Diocese of Pennsylvania's convention Nov. 11.

Members of the group stood on nearby street corners and near the entrance to Philadelphia Cathedral to hand out pamphlets and to hold protest signs. The bishop's opponents, including elected members of the standing committee, accuse him of spending more than $10 million in unrestricted funds "without canonical authority and without the consent of the standing committee."

During the convention, however, the calls for Bishop Bennison's resignation focused on how he responded when, as a rector in California more than 30 years ago, he learned that his brother, John, had engaged in sexual relations with a 14-year-old girl. He dismissed his brother as the parish's youth minister, but did not inform the girl's parents or police.

One call for the bishop's resignation occurred during the Holy Eucharist that began the convention. Priests came forward two by two and took turns announcing their parish name after dropping the church's financial pledge into an offering envelope. As the Rev. Marek Zabriskie announced his parish of St. Thomas', Whitemarsh, he added that the pledge included "a letter of deep concern about your leadership, Bishop.

"It's time to step down," Fr. Zabriskie said, to scattered gasps.

Only minutes earlier, during his annual address to the convention, Bishop Bennison expressed his grief about his brother's behavior, but also disputed the charge that he has misused diocesan funds.

"I have never spent any monies without obtaining the approval of the requisite governing body as determined in our canons through the interpretation of them by our chancellor," he said.

Bishop Bennison said he had not realized the scope of his brother's sexual behavior until reading transcripts from forums held in the diocese several days before the convention.

"My efforts to maintain confidentiality and prevent scandal were very misguided, born of my mistaken idea that while I viewed John's behavior as highly immoral, at the time I had no idea of how extensive, pathological, and damaging it was," he said.

Those who sought Bishop Bennison's dismissal were able to get the topic to the convention floor only by submitting a resolution in response to his annual address. The resolution called for "expanded education around clergy sexual abuse . . . and the damage caused by long-term cover-up."

Both opponents and supporters of Bishop Bennison drew vigorous applause from a divided convention.

The Rev. Pamela McAbee Nesbitt, a deacon at St. Andrew's, Yardley, was the first person to call on the bishop to resign during the business session of the convention. Her call prompted a few shouts of "No!"

The Rev. Judith Beck of St. Peter's, Philadelphia, proposed an amendment that said the diocese would hold Bishop Bennison accountable for his handling of his brother's situation. Fr. Zabriskie proposed a further amendment that called for the bishop's immediate resignation.

The Very Rev. Richard Giles, dean of the Philadelphia Cathedral, said he did not trust the motives of the bishop's opponents. "I believe there is abuse of power and manipulation on the part of those who so eagerly brought these matters to our attention in recent days."

When convention voted on the amendment to hold the bishop accountable and it narrowly failed, several people began applauding. "Please, no applause, no applause," the bishop said. "This is a very serious matter."

Although the convention discussed Fr. Zabriskie's amendment, it never came to a vote. William Bullitt, a former chancellor of the diocese who served as parliamentarian, agreed with Bishop Bennison's contention that Fr. Zabriskie's amendment was not germane to the original resolution.

The original resolution passed handily, leaving little more than an hour for convention deputies to discuss a proposed budget of $3.45 million. It was adopted with some amendments, according to Archdeacon James Ley. All the business on the agenda was not completed, however, so deputies voted to reconvene in the next 60 days. Because so many people seemed confused by action on the budget, the Rev. William H. Wood III, president of the standing committee, expects there will be more debate.

Douglas LeBlanc with Steve Waring


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