Pennsylvania: House of Bishops Calls on Bennison to Resign

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Episcopal Life
September 22, 2010

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal House of Bishop has called on its colleague, Diocese of Pennsylvania Bishop Charles Bennison to "tender his immediate and unconditional resignation."

The bishops announced their request at the end of their Sept. 16-21 fall gathering in Phoenix, Arizona, by releasing a lengthy "mind of the house" resolution that said they were "profoundly troubled by the outcome of the disciplinary action" against Bennison, and had concluded that his "capacity to exercise the ministry of pastoral oversight is irretrievably damaged."

"Therefore, we exhort Charles, our brother in Christ, in the strongest possible terms, to tender his immediate and unconditional resignation as the bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania," the bishops said. "For the sake of the wholeness and unity of the body of Christ, in the Diocese of Pennsylvania and in the church, we implore our brother to take this action without further delay."

Bennison was present during the discussion leading up to the passage of the resolution, but did not comment, according to Episcopal Church Public Affairs Officer Neva Rae Fox.

As of 10:30 p.m. EDT, Bennison had not officially responded to his fellow bishops' request. He did not reply to a request from Episcopal News Service for comment.

Saying the matter had "has weighed heavily upon the hearts of every member of the House of Bishops," the bishops vowed to continue to pray for "Charles, his family, and every person who has been hurt by the church."

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, California, 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.

Bennison had been prevented (inhibited) from exercising his ordained ministry since the fall of 2007 when the disciplinary action began. The ban expired with the review court's decision.

"We respect the decision of the Court of Review and we share their disappointment and find the ultimate resolution of this matter unsatisfactory and morally repugnant," the House of Bishops said in its resolution. "The wholly inadequate response of our brother bishop to the sexual assault upon a minor is an inexcusable violation of his ordination vows."

The bishops said they "stand in unequivocal solidarity" with anyone who has been sexually abused by a clergy or lay member of the church.

"We apologize, out of the depths of God's compassion for every human being, to the woman who has been victimized by Bishop Bennison's lack of responsible action, and to all those who have in any way been hurt by our church," they said. "We are deeply sorry and we are committed to consistent discipline for those who bring shame upon the Body of Christ by sinful, demeaning, and selfish behavior that takes from another human being their God-given dignity."

Fallout from the review court's decision made for a flurry of statement and counter-statements and letters and replies to letters from the diocesan standing committee, the victim of John Bennison's abuse and other witnesses, from House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson and from Bennison himself.

In the middle of the House of Bishops meeting, an article about the tension in the diocese appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper. In an interview for the article given before the bishops began their meeting, Bennison reportedly called the efforts to depose him "Machiavellian," the charges against him "Kafka-esque," and his 2007 inhibition "craziness."

"Church leaders wanted him out, he surmised, because of his sometimes-divisive leadership style and controversial financial priorities," the paper reported.

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 the Standing Committee has called for Bennison's resignation, including on the day he returned to work in August. Most recently, the Standing Committee asked for the help of the House of Bishops for its "support and assistance" in securing Bennison's retirement or resignation.

The Rev. Glenn Matis, Standing Committee chair, told ENS that the committee would respond Sept. 22 to the house's action.

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