Pennsylvania Bishop Bennison Should Have the Wisdom to Resign, Bonnie Anderson Says

Episcopal Life
September 2, 2010

President of the House of Deputies Bonnie Anderson has said that she wishes the Rt. Rev. Charles Bennison would have the "wisdom and generosity of spirit to resign" as bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania.

A review court verdict enabled Bennison to return to work although it agreed that he failed to respond appropriately when he had reason to believe that his brother, John Bennison, was engaged in sexual misconduct with a young girl in his California parish some 30 years ago.

"As bishop he is more likely to deepen divisions and discredit the church than he is to bring healing or advance our common mission," Anderson said in a Sept. 1 letter written to five witnesses who had testified at Bennison's trial.

Bennison resumed his role as bishop after the church's Court of Review for the Trial of a Bishop overturned a lower court's finding that he ought to be deposed (removed) from ordained ministry because he had engaged in conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy. The review court agreed with one of the lower court's two findings of misconduct, but said that Bennison could not be deposed because the charge was barred by the church's statute of limitations.

The witnesses -- who included Martha Alexis, the abuse victim; Julia Alexis, her mother; and Maggie Thompson, John Bennison's ex-wife, to whom he was married when the abuse began -- wrote an open letter on Aug. 20 expressing "great sorrow" that the review court verdict had enabled Bennison to return to the Pennsylvania diocese as its bishop. The letter was addressed to the people of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, members of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, and Episcopalians everywhere.

"I want you to know that I share your hope that the Episcopal Church can be, 'a guiding beacon to all people everywhere who are affected in some way by clergy sexual abuse,'" Anderson said, quoting the witnesses' letter. "I also share your frustration that in your case, and in others, our churches were not 'safe sanctuaries' for vulnerable people. And I share your outrage that individuals in positions of authority have been complicit in maintaining a climate of silence and denial that has inhibited our efforts to end sexual abuse within our church."

Anderson said that she shared the wish of the Diocese of Pennsylvania's Standing Committee that Bennison would resign, noting that his "lack of remorse about his handling of this situation, and his solipsistic view of what is at stake, concern me deeply."

The witnesses wrote in their letter that they were "particularly concerned" that Bennison "stated publicly at trial that he still believes that he acted appropriately in this matter and would take the same approach again if called to do so.

"He has learned nothing," they said.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori inhibited Bennison in October 2007 from exercising his ordained ministry when the church's Title IV Review Committee formally accused him of the inaction. The inhibition expired with the review court's decision.

Bennison returned to the diocesan offices on Aug. 16 amid calls for his retirement or resignation, notably from the Standing Committee, which had been the ecclesiastical authority during Bennison's inhibition.

The Standing Committee has been at odds with Bennison since the mid-2000s over concerns about how he managed the diocese's assets and other issues. More than once in the past it has called for Bennison's resignation.

Anderson said that it is her prayer that the bishops of the Episcopal Church, when they meet Sept. 16-21 in Arizona, "will prayerfully consider this matter and either prevail upon Bishop Bennison to resign, or undertake other measures that lead to Bishop Bennison's removal from office."

She also said that as a result of the witnesses' letter "and those of numerous others, I have turned my attention to considering the steps that our church might take to prevent this kind of injustice from happening again. In the wake of this decision, it seems essential to address a deficiency in the structures of our church, namely that there is no means of dissolving the relationship between a bishop and a diocese that find themselves in untenable circumstances. I am also considering the calls coming from many Episcopalians to amend our canons to include clergy and laity on the Court of Review."

The bishops composing the Court of Review for the Trial of a Bishop in the Bennison case are Michael Curry (North Carolina), Clifton Daniel (East Carolina, presiding judge), Duncan Gray (Mississippi), Mary Gray-Reeves (El Camino Real), Don Johnson (West Tennessee), Chilton Knudsen (Maine, resigned), Bruce MacPherson (Western Louisiana) and Todd Ousley (Eastern Michigan).

Anderson said that a review of the canons "is in order" in preparation for General Convention, the Episcopal Church's main legislative body which next meets in 2012.

"I am presently in consultation with members of my council of advice, deputies and others with particular interest and knowledge in these matters to determine the most expedient and efficient way to proceed in this review," she said. "I wish there were more that I could offer you in gratitude for your bravery in the face of all that you have endured at the hands of our church. It grieves me to be another person telling you that my hands are tied, and I know the potential remedies that I am proposing may serve the church in the long-term but do nothing to right the wrongs inflicted upon you.

"But within our polity, this is what is within my power to do. Please know that I will pursue these issues seriously and actively, and with the support and counsel of others in the church who also find this situation unacceptable."

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