|Bishop in Sex Case Contends 1970s Were Different
By David O’Reilly
June 12, 2008
On the last day of a very unusual trial, Episcopal Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. continued to defend himself against charges that he concealed his brother's sexual abuse of a minor decades ago, saying today that he acted within the standards of the times.
"As poorly as I handled it," he said, "if I had applied today's protocols then, things might have turned out worse."
In October, the Episcopal Church USA suspended him as head of the five-county Diocese of Pennsylvania on the ground that he engaged in "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy" for failing to protect the girl or report his brother's misbehavior. The church alleges that Bennison did so in order to advance his career.
The trial that resulted was just the third Court for the Trial of a Bishop in the 232-year history of the Episcopal Church USA.
Bennison said he was trying to guard the teenager's reputation by not alerting her parents when he heard "rumors" of the sexual relationship.
In the 1970s, he said today, most adults, including the girl's parents, would have viewed her not as an abuse victim but as guilty of "immorality."
That would have caused her shame, he said.
"I was trying to protect her," Bennison said.
Bennison, now 64, was rector of St. Mark's Parish in Upland, Calif., when his brother John, a parish youth minister, started a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old member of the parish.
When a judge asked Bennison whether he had been aware then of statutory rape laws, he said he was "not familiar" with the term in the 1970s and "never heard the word minor" used in connection with sexual misconduct in those days.
Clergy of the day were taught to respond more in terms of sin and morality, he said.
But when another judge asked whether he had invited his brother or the girl "into the sacrament of confession and repentance," Bennison said he had not.
He was not his brother's spiritual adviser, he said, "and I didn't want to embarrass or shame" the girl by asking her.
The victim, now 50, and her mother, 78, wept during that and other parts of the cross-examination in the trial at a Center City hotel. In testimony over two days, the victim said Bennison did nothing to protect or comfort her.
Bennison also defended his decision not to inform the Diocese of Los Angeles, where his brother was a candidate for the priesthood, about the abuse.
Bennison, who has said he confronted his brother about a sexual relationship between the two and accepted his denials, said he had heard of it only as "rumors." He also said he felt confident that his brother would not repeat the mistake.
If two-thirds of the nine judges conclude that Bennison is guilty on either of two counts of "conduct unbecoming," he could be removed permanently from clerical office in the church. A decision by the judges - five bishops, two priests and two lay people - could take several weeks. There are five women on the panel, one of them a bishop.
Much of the cross-examination was devoted to the prosecution lawyers' challenging apparent inconsistencies in Bennison's assertions that he never had sufficient knowledge of his brother's abuse to halt it or report it.
At one point church attorney Ralph A. Jacobs asked the bishop whether he was suffering from "selective amnesia" brought on by keeping his handling of the abuse secret for so long.
"I think it's amnesia," Bennison replied, "but not from an attempt to keep it secret."
In closing arguments Jacobs referred to what he called Bennison's "many lost opportunities" to respond appropriately, which he said were driven by concern for his career.
Bennison's attorney, John A. Pabarue, responded that Bennison had acted according to the standards of the time. Even if he had displayed "bad pastoring," he did not engage in "conduct unbecoming a member of clergy," he said.
Pabarue argued that the charges against his client were brought by the diocesan standing committee - somewhat akin to a board of directors - whose 10 members have sought for several years to remove Bennison as diocesan bishop.
He said committee members evidently saw an opportunity to embarrass Bennison in May 2006, when a San Francisco TV station reported on the abuse.
"Someone - we don't know who" - sent letters and other documents related to the abuse to diocesan headquarters, which ordered the trial in October, according to Pabarue.
Whoever it was is "using the [victim's] family sorrow to achieve their goals," Pabarue said.
Jacobs countered that Bennison's claims about social conventions in the 1970s was dishonest.
John Bennison's actions were "reprehensible, sinful, criminal," Jacobs said. "That hasn't changed in 30 years, or 100 years."
Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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