Church Polices Self on Abuse!

By Peter Smith
November 2, 2007

As far as I know, this has never happened in the Roman Catholic Church, which was besieged in 2002 with revelations that bishops from Boston to Louisville to the Philippines had concealed sexual abusers in the ranks of clergy.

Nor has it happened to anyone in the upper ranks of other religious denominations that have had notorious cases of sexual abuse.

But a bishop in the Episcopal Church this week was named in the equivalent of an indictment in church courts. He was accused of covering up the sexual abuse of a teenage girl by his brother, who was then a lay minister and later a priest.

This is the first case I've ever heard of in which a denomination actually hauled one of its own leaders into its courts for a public disciplining over the abuse of a minor.

Following is a bracing capsule of the "presentment" against Bishop Charles Bennison of Pennsylvania. (A presentment is similar to an indictment, leading to charges in the church courts). The account is written by Episcopal News Service:

    "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 relationship, 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. "

Does that account sound familiar? How many bishops and other church leaders could have similar paragraphs written about their actions -- and inactions?

The Roman Catholic bishops, after years of growing scandal, voted to bar all abusers from ministry in 2002, but that was after years of allowing them to remain as priests with no knowledge of the parishioners they were serving. Many priests were then ousted, but how many bishops were publicly disciplined for their own role?

"None," says David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, when I posed the question to him.

Phoenix Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien avoided criminal prosecution in a deal in which he admitted covering up sexual misconduct by priests, but he didn't face church charges. (He later resigned after leaving the scene of a fatal accident, but that's another story.)

Cardinal Bernard Law was pressured to resign from the Archdiocese of Boston amid revelations of a widespread cover-up, but resigning is different from facing charges. He soon received a prominent post in Rome.

Law retains his red hat. Bennison could lose his purple shirt.

Bennison has previously apologized for "lack of action on my part" in the case.

It's clear that Bennison had other troubles. His own standing committee was seeking his removal over alleged financial mismanagement. That might have motivated people to press the abuse case against him in church courts.

Nevertheless, a denomination's willingness to discipline one of its top brass for failing to protect a minor seems virtually unprecedented.

Among other denominations that have had their scandals, do we know of any cases in which leaders of the Jehovah's Witnesses have faced discipline for covering up the presence of an abuser? Of the Southern Baptists? Of the Mormons? Of the Presbyterians?

"Nope, none," says Clohessy.


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