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PENNSYLVANIA: Bishop declines request to resign

PENNSYLVANIA: Bishop declines request to resign

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Episcopal News Service
September 22, 2010

Saying he has "always been, innocent of the charges against me," Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania Bishop Charles Bennison announced late Sept. 22 that he would not honor his colleagues' request that he resign his position.

Bennison, via a statement e-mailed to Episcopal News Service by his publicist, said that he hoped "the suffering I have endured during the past three years has strengthened me and will enable me to work for reconciliation within the diocese."

The House of Bishops announced their request at the end of their Sept. 16-21 fall gathering in Phoenix, Arizona. In a lengthy and strongly worded "mind of the house" resolution, they 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.

"We will continue to pray for Charles, his family, and every person who has been hurt by the church," the bishops said.

Bennison replied in his statement that he appreciated the prayers of his peers in the house of Bishops "and understand that they are concerned for the welfare of my soul."

"However, they have no cause to be worried," he said.

The Rev. Glenn Matis, president of the Standing Committee, told ENS late Sept. 22 that he was "not surprised by Bishop Bennison's statement."

"He has made it crystal-clear to us that he will not resign or retire," he said in an e-mailed statement. "The only hope we have is that when he reaches the mandatory age of 72, he will resign or retire. This diocese is facing major issues of finances, property, and declining church membership. Under his leadership, it is a just matter of time before we are facing serious financial problems. His continued presence among us will further divide the diocese."

Bennison, 66, 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 inhibited (prevented) from exercising his ordained ministry since the fall of 2007 when the disciplinary action began. The ban expired with the review court's decision.

"I have deep compassion for the young woman who was abused," Bennison said in his statement. "If I could have prevented that abuse, I would certainly have done so. But I did not know of the relationship until it was over, and I can not pretend otherwise."

"I have nothing but affection for her and for her parents, whom I loved very much, and if there were any way that I could help her now, I would do so," he said, but added that his resignation "will not ease her pain or remove the sting of the abusive relationship." The bishop concluded that he hoped that "the members of the diocese and I can put the past behind us and work together to achieve our goals."

In the middle of the House of Bishops' meeting, an article about the tension in the diocese appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper. It quotes Bennison as calling 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 had asked for the help of the House of Bishops for its "support and assistance" in securing Bennison's retirement or resignation.

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http://www.episcopalchurch.org/documents/Microsoft_Word_-_Bennison_statement_in_response_to_HOB_9_22_10__3_.pdf

I sincerely appreciate the prayers of my peers in the House of Bishops and understand that they are concerned for the welfare of my soul.

However, they have no cause to be worried. I am, and have always been, innocent of the charges against me. And now the Court of Review of the Episcopal Church has reversed the erroneous decision of the Trial Court, and I have been restored to my position as Bishop of Pennsylvania.

As the Court of Review clearly determined from its review of the facts, I was unaware of my younger brother's inappropriate relationship with a minor member of our church until late 1977, after the relationship was over, and the young woman was legally an adult. The Court of Review also determined that I did not conceal anything about this matter, including my conduct, and that numerous clergy and bishops, including the then Presiding Bishop, Edmond Browning, knew of my conduct and did not deem it to be unbecoming a member of the clergy. Because the young woman was an adult when I first learned of the relationship in 1977, I did not inform her parents. When her parents did learn of the relationship, they requested that I keep the matter private, and I respected their wishes.

I have deep compassion for the young woman who was abused. If I could have prevented that abuse, I would certainly have done so. But I did not know of the relationship until it was over, and I can not pretend otherwise. I have nothing but affection for her and for her parents, whom I loved very much, and if there were any way that I could help her now, I would do so.

But resigning my position as Bishop of Pennsylvania will not ease her pain or remove the sting of the abusive relationship. Instead, I hope that the suffering I have endured during the past three years has strengthened me and will enable me to work for reconciliation within the Diocese.

I look forward to resuming my mission within the Church. We are a small Church, but a noble and historic one. I hope that the members of the Diocese and I can put the past behind us and work together to achieve our goals.

END

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