Pennsylvania: Bishop Objects to House of Deputies President's Letter

Episcopal Life
September 14, 2010

Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania Bishop Charles Bennison has told House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson that a recent letter she wrote about his re-instatement has made his ministry in the diocese "more difficult."

In a letter dated Sept. 10, Bennison also characterized Anderson's letter as "so misleading as to raise the question whether you actually read all of the trial evidence on which your statements are based."

The bishop's letter was e-mailed to Episcopal News Service Sept. 14 by his publicist.

Bennison resumed his role as diocesan bishop Aug. 16, some 11 days after the church's Court of Review for the Trial of a Bishop overturned a lower church 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.

Episcopal Church canons have no time limit for bringing claims arising out of physical violence, sexual abuse or sexual exploitation of a person younger than 21 years (Canon IV.19.4(a) and (b). The statute of limitations on other offenses committed by clergy is 10 years, with certain exceptions extending the time period by a small number of additional years.

The decision by the Court of Review for the Trial of a Bishop is here.

The lower court, the Court for the Trial of a Bishop, had called for Bennison's deposition after it found that 35 years ago when he was rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Upland, Calif., he failed to respond properly after learning that his brother, John Bennison, was "engaged in a sexually abusive and sexually exploitive relationship" with a minor parishioner. At the time, John Bennison was a 24-year-old newly ordained deacon (later priest) whom Charles Bennison had hired as youth minister. The abuse allegedly lasted for more than three years from the time the minor was 14 years old.

Charles Bennison was found to have failed to discharge his pastoral obligations to the girl, the members of her family, and the members of the parish youth group as well as church authorities after he learned of his brother's behavior. The court said that he suppressed the information about his brother until 2006, when he disclosed publicly what he knew.

Anderson's letter had come in response to an earlier open letter written by five witnesses in the proceedings -- including 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 -- expressing "great sorrow" that the review court verdict had enabled Bennison to return to the 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.

Anderson said in her response that she prayed that, during a Sept. 16-21 meeting in Arizona, the church's bishops "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 she is considering the steps that the church might take to prevent "this kind of injustice" from happening again and said 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."

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, adding that she is consulting with a range of people to determine how best to do the review.

Bennison devoted close to half of his letter to Anderson to a review of his understanding of his conduct and of the Review Court's findings, saying at one point, "there is nothing in my forty-two-year ordained ministry to indicate that I have ever covered up or looked the other way when I have learned of sexual abuse."

The bishop also criticized Anderson's expressed desire for action by the House of Bishops and for a change in the way a diocese can act when its relationship with its bishop is untenable. He said that Anderson had "failed to heed" the Review Court's warning against attempting to use the statute of limitations exemption in church's sexual-abuse disciplinary canons, in the court's word, as "an effort to use events in the distant past when [Charles Bennison] was a priest to remove a bishop during current times of conflict within the diocese."

The diocesan 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, including on the day he returned to work in August. It has since asked for the help of the House of Bishops.

"Your passion for justice, for which I have long admired you, would extend, I should hope, to the church's proper use of its canons," Bennison wrote to Anderson.

"In all fairness to the Church, to the Diocese of Pennsylvania, and to me, I would hope that, as you do so, you will thoroughly review all the facts of this particular case and my life's work, be exacting in your reading of the canons, and honor our governance established in a rule of law," the bishop wrote in concluding his letter.

Anderson received an electronic copy of Bennison's letter on Sept. 14 and later reiterated her concerns in a statement emailed to ENS.

"As I said in my response to the letter that I received from the witnesses in this case, it is my prayer that the bishops of the Episcopal Church will prevail upon Bishop Bennison to resign or undertake other measures that lead to his removal from office," she wrote. "At the same time, I think it is important that the General Convention consider remedies for those rare situations when the relationship between a bishop and his or her diocese has deteriorated beyond repair."


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