Norristown, Pa: the Trial of Charles E. Bennison - Day One

By David W. Virtue
Virtue Online
October 20, 2008

Charles E. Bennison came dressed in a plain suit and tie.

Fr. David Moyer, rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, came dressed in his clericals, an odd juxtaposition but understandable since Bennison has been officially deposed by The Episcopal Church. He is appealing his verdict.

Bennison, 63, looked a sad and pathetic figure as he sat alone in court room No. 8 in Norristown, PA, surrounded only by his legal team. His wife was oddly absent as were all the clergy of the Diocese of Pennsylvania. Nobody apparently wants to know him or be seen with him. Bennison, the once feared, loathed and despised former Bishop of Pennsylvania, is on his own.

This is his second trial within a matter of months. This time he faces multiple charges of fraud and deception in a civil court coming only months after being found guilty on an ecclesiastical count of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.

In his opening defense of Fr. Moyer, John H Lewis, Jr., laid out evidence that Bennison, in 2002, abused his position and authority as a bishop. As a result, Fr. Moyer was severely damaged emotionally, spiritually and psychologically and that his ministry was cut short by a curt fax machine letter informing him that he had been found arbitrarily guilty of abandoning the communion of the church. Fr. Moyer was inhibited for six months, which he accepted. Bennison later threw Moyer out of the priesthood while denying him a church trial.

According to Lewis, Bishop Bennison made jokes as he signed the deposition papers. Why did Bennison do this to Fr. Moyer? The Episcopal Church is divided over many issues. Bennison campaigned to get the job as Bishop of Pennsylvania making election promises to traditionalist priests to act as a traditionalist bishop, a promise he broke. No bishop is above the law."

Because Moyer made a fuss about this, Bennison decided to getting rid of Moyer saying, "this is between David and me".

Lewis said Church rules on removal of a priest entitle Moyer to a church trial. "Bennison decided never to have a trial. Bennison used Canon 10 so as to avoid a church trial. Moyer insisted that he was not leaving the Episcopal Church. Bennison knew that what he was doing was wrong and even the head of The Episcopal Church told him the plan was wrong. Bennison concealed the letter from Moyer."

Following his inhibition, Moyer stood down from his duties as a priest for six months. Bennison, however, was relentless in his desire to have Moyer removed.

Lewis said the plan against Moyer was carried out in several stages. "Bennison stirred up hatred and contempt against Moyer. He confused and mislead the Standing Committee, because the Standing Committee would not go along with a trial against Moyer. Angry at being deceived, Bennison hired a public relations agent and began a public relations campaign against Moyer, using his staff to get the media involved in hurting Moyer.

"As a result Moyer faced the loss of his position, his pension, he was in personal agony with other priests avoiding him all the while Bennison steadfastly refused Moyer a trial.

"In 2002. Bennison signed a document - a sentence of deposition - saying it grieved him deeply but just days before, as he signed the deposition he was photographed laughing and telling jokes to the Rev. Bill Wood, chairman of the Standing Committee. Bennison's action was condemned by the then presiding Bishop Frank Griswold."

As he concluded his opening statement, Lewis asked the jury to consider five questions: "Did Charles Bennison damage Fr. Moyer by interfering with his contract; did he issue false statements about Moyer? Did he deny him due process, did he conceal and distort evidence and did he resort to extremely outrageous conduct?"

Mary Kohart, Bennison's attorney, said the bishop was well within his rights as a bishop to hire and fire a priest. "The flying bishop arrangement ended in 1997," she told the jury. "Before becoming bishop, Bennison was told of the Parson's Plan, but it had expired in three years previous in 1997. Then Bishop Allen Bartlett did not renew it." She said a three year cooling off period did not resolve the question and schism was inevitable. She said that former bishops Turner and Bartlett even offered Evensong as an option to get around the visitation rights of the bishop, but to no avail. Moyer declined all options, she said.

Four pretrial motions to dismiss the case being heard before Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas Branca last year failed with the judge siding with Moyer. Lewis claimed that there is no other remedy because Moyer had been improperly denied a church trial by Bennison.

The trial continues tomorrow when Bennison will stand before Judge Joseph A. Smyth and a jury of his peers.


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