Pennsylvania: Standing Committee Upholds Presiding Bishop's Decision to Inhibit Bishop

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Episcopal Life
November 2, 2007

[Episcopal News Service] All 10 members of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania's Standing Committee agreed to Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's October 30 inhibition of Pennsylvania Bishop Charles Bennison from all ordained ministry. Bennison has been accused of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.

The unanimous vote came "after a full and frank discussion," according to a November 1 Standing Committee statement.

"We believe that the allegations in the Presentment against Bishop Bennison are profoundly serious and we respect and rely on the work of the Review Committee of The Episcopal Church to have properly and thoroughly investigated these allegations," the Rev. Glenn M. Matis, president of the Standing Committee, said in the statement. "These allegations were not made by the Standing Committee, but having read the Presentment document carefully and discussed it with Counsel, we felt it incumbent on us to allow the process to go forward as requested by the Presiding Bishop's office."

The Standing Committee has been at odds with the bishop for more than two years over concerns about how he has managed the diocese's assets. More than once in the past, the Standing Committee has called for his resignation or retirement.

A report issued March 7, 2006 by Matthews of and Woodriff Sprinkel, LCSW outlined the conflicts in the diocese. Their report concluded that they "cannot recommend any process of conciliation or any 'rigorous long-term process for addressing problems.' If the Standing Committee and the Bishop still insist that some process be devised for them to address the issues that have been raised and/or to work on terms of separation through formal mediation, then the Presiding Bishop's Office will assist as long as the ground rules are defined by outside persons to insure that neither party tries to control the process. The expense of this work would be solely that of the Diocese, and the choice of the mediation firm would be that of the Presiding Bishop's Office."

Jefferts Schori issued the inhibition against Bennison October 31 after the Title IV Review Committee agreed to a presentment or charge of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy against Bennison on October 28, accusing him of mishandling his brother's sexual abuse of a minor while he was in the bishop's employ and for years afterwards.

The Standing Committee's statement said its discussion and subsequent agreement to the presentment came during a meeting with Michael F. Rehill, special counsel to the Standing Committee; F. Clayton Matthews, bishop for pastoral development in the Episcopal Church; David Booth Beers, chancellor to the Presiding Bishop; and Beers' assistant, Mary E. Kostel.

The consent of the Standing Committee to the inhibition was required by the Title IV, Canon 1, Section 6 of the Episcopal Church. The Standing Committee will become the ecclesiastical authority in the diocese at 12:01 a.m. November 4 when Bennison must cease "all episcopal, ministerial, and canonical acts," according to the inhibition. The diocese meets in its 224th annual convention November 3.

"We are humbled as we assume this authority, and we are profoundly aware of our own and the diocese's grief and sorrow at this time," the committee's statement said. "We ask your prayers for Charles and his family, for the Standing Committee, and for all in the Diocese of Pennsylvania. With faith in Jesus Christ, with assurance of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and with sure reliance on the promises of God that will heal us and make us whole, we pray we may all be drawn together as we face this difficult time. May our hearts and minds be joined in such a way as to make possible the restoration of spiritual health in our beloved diocese, and may we once again become a place of leadership within the Episcopal Church."

The Standing Committee sought to assure the Clergy and people of the Diocese of Pennsylvania that it "has and will continue to exercise its canonical responsibilities in the best interests of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Pennsylvania," adding that the committee will work with Matthews, Rehill and diocesan leaders, both lay and clergy, "to develop and implement plans for exercising ecclesiastical authority in the absence of a diocesan bishop."

The two counts of the presentment center on accusations that Bennison, when he was rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Upland, California, did not respond properly after learning sometime in 1973 that his brother, John, who worked as a lay youth minister in the parish, was having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old member of the youth group. John Bennison was also married at the time, according to the presentment.

The bishop is accused of not taking any steps to end the sexual abuse of the girl, not providing proper pastoral care to the girl, not investigating whether she needed medical care, taking three years to notify the girl's parents, not reporting his brother to anyone, not investigating whether his brother was sexually involved with any other parishioners or other children, and seeking no advice on how to proceed. The presentment says Charles Bennison reacted "passively and self-protectively."

The second count of the presentment accuses Bennison of continuing to fail in his duties until the fall of 2006. John Bennison became ordained during this time and the bishop is accused of not preventing his brother's ordination, or his ultimately successful application to be reinstated as a priest after having renounced his orders in 1977, or his desire to transfer from the Diocese of Los Angeles to the Diocese of California. John Bennison was forced in 2006 to renounce his orders again when news of his abuse became public.

Bennison will continue to be paid during the time that he is inhibited. He will have an opportunity to respond to the presentment's charges. A date for the trial before the Court for the Trial of a Bishop will be set.

Here are the complete texts of the presentment and the inhibition.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.