Pennsylvania: Court Hears Arguments about Its Order to Depose Bennison

By Jerry Hames
Episcopal Life

November 13, 2008

[Episcopal News Service] Diocese of Pennsylvania Bishop Charles Bennison's defense counsel argued before an ecclesiastical court in downtown Philadelphia on Nov. 12 that its verdict and sentencing were flawed, and that its recommendation that the bishop be deposed was too severe.

In his arguments, James A. Pabarue said the court had ignored the statute of limitations, arrived at conclusions contrary to the evidence given and appeared to punish the bishop for enacting his rights as outlined in the Episcopal Church’s canons on clergy discipline.

Pabarue also said that the Office of the Presiding Bishop had shown bias by interfering in the case. "The evidence clearly shows that the Presiding Bishop's office has been trying to force Bishop Bennison out of this diocese," Pabarue said, stating that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori had "asked for his resignation several times before the presentment was issued."

The Court for the Trial of a Bishop, which spent four days in June hearing the case against Bennison, ruled September 30 that deposition was appropriate "in recognition of the nature of the offense and because [Bennison] has failed to demonstrate that he comprehends and takes responsibility for the harm that he has caused."

Bennison was determined by the court in June to have engaged in conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.

Bennison, 64, faced two counts in a "presentment," the church's equivalent of an indictment. The first count of the presentment that formed the basis of the June trial said that 35 years ago when Bennison, as rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Upland, California, failed to respond properly after learning that his brother, John Bennison, a 24-year-old newly ordained deacon whom he had hired as youth minister, was "engaged in a sexually abusive and sexually exploitive relationship" with a 14-year-old parishioner. The abuse lasted for more than three years.

The presentment also said Charles Bennison failed to discharge his pastoral obligations to the girl, the members of her family, and the members of the parish youth group after he learned of his brother's behavior.

The second count accused him of suppressing the information about his brother until 2006 when he disclosed publicly what he knew. John Bennison, having once renounced his orders, later successfully sought reinstatement as a priest. He was forced again to renounce his orders in 2006 when knowledge of the abuse became public.

"Charles Bennison was not the perpetrator. He was cooperative.… He said he did what he thought was best in the circumstances at that time and said he would never act today as he did in 1975. It is clear this sentence is simply wrong and not a just application of the canons," Pabarue said.

Pabarue said the ecclesiastical judicial process creates an atmosphere that by its very nature limits his client’s freedom to apologize. An expectation of confession or opportunity for reconciliation must be tempered by the adversarial nature of the process, he said. Bennison did not speak during the hearing.

Pabarue called four character witnesses on Bennison's behalf, three from the diocese and Suffragan Bishop John L. Rabb of the Diocese of Maryland, who testified that he had known Charles Bennison for 20 years.

"I have never had any reason to doubt his faithfulness … nor his ability to minister to those under his charge," said Rabb.

The most lengthy testimony of the four witnesses came from the Rev. Robert Tate, rector of Philadelphia's Church of St. Martin in-the-Fields. He questioned both the court's verdict and its judgment in imposing a sentence.

"There is a difference between Charles Bennison explaining his actions and Charles Bennison defending his actions over the past 35 years," Tate said. "Our understanding of sexual misconduct has changed dramatically in the last 35 years. Charles Bennison has said publicly that, knowing what he knows now about sexual abuse and sexual misconduct, he would make a different decision today."

Lawrence White, the prosecuting attorney acting for the Episcopal Church, sought repeatedly to convince the judges that Bennison would act no differently today than he had in 1975 and in succeeding years. "In his trial testimony on June 12 he failed to demonstrate that he takes responsibility for the wrong he had committed and said he would act no differently now than he did in 1975," said White. "His words and deeds reflect a sorry attempt to blame others."

He then called upon Martha Alexis, the teenaged victim of John Bennison’s abuse in 1975, and her mother, June Alexis, who each made a short statement. "At the trial, we were reminded once more that we do not stand alone," said June Alexis, recounting her three visits to the diocese since November 2006. "Today, I am here to thank you," she told the judges, calling the sentence they imposed "courageous, just and commensurate with the harm done to my daughter and others."

Martha Alexis, saying she was sorry to be back in court, said she carried a burden of sorrow and shame for decades. "At last this burden I bore [had been] placed where it belongs," she said. "The sentence has righted a grievous wrong and given me an unexpected gift of spiritual healing." She said the court's decision and sentence have restored her dignity and worth, shown that the weak are protected and that the vows of holy orders are sacred.

White said that of the three punishments the court could determine, the verdict of deposition was correct. Neither the alternatives of admonition nor suspension were commensurate with the gravity of the offence, he said. He argued that even a suspension of seven years, until the bishop reaches the mandatory age of retirement, would be insufficient in light of the seriousness of the offence and the bishop's failure to demonstrate that he takes responsibility for the wrong he has committed.

The court did not rule at the conclusion of the hearing.


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