Having once lived and worshiped in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, and with many friends still there, it has been painful to see the Bishop Charles Bennison case drag along. Bennison and the Diocese have been at odds for several years (see his wikipedia entry for a reasonable summary) at first between him and several conservative churches, and more lately, a broader cross-section of the diocese over financial issues.
One of the frustrating things about the Episcopal Church is the imbalance in the relationship between clergy and their "constituents". Once a parish calls a priest, or a diocese calls a bishop, the rule is your stuck with them until they decide to leave. I've been in parishes where the parishioners just have to wait out a priest. And, of course, the terrible ones (and let's not sugar coat this - there are plenty of them) have no intention of leaving until they're good and ready, no matter how awful the situation gets. This is bad enough at the parish level, but it's really not uncommon and people kind of get used to it. If you've been through it, then it makes you appreciate the good ones all the more.
On the diocesan scale, though, it's pretty much a disaster all around, and generally high profile. I'm sure in Pennsylvania the Bennison opponents that developed over the years were looking for anything that could get him out of their diocese. It just so happened that Bennison did have a substantial skeleton in his closet - covering up of his brother's sexual abuse of a minor dating back to at least 1973.
Charles Bennison had hired his younger brother John Bennison as his youth minister back in 1972 when he was rector of St Mark's, Upland CA. All of the subsequent story glosses over this part, but here's an example of really bad judgment - hiring your brother to a potentially sensitive post in a relatively small church. The Bennisons' father was a bishop, by the way.
Things really started to go off the rails when this brother started a sexual relationship with a 15 year old member of the youth group. The following details and all subsequent are from the Bennison's recent ecclesiastical appeals court ruling and are not in dispute (the Appellant is Charles Bennison). I recommend you read the whole thing if you can stand it:
In the Spring of 1973 a minor (age 15) female member of the St. Mark's congregation was active in one of the youth groups for which John Bennison was responsible. John Bennison began having sexual relations with the minor female. The sexual relations continued over the next 3 years until the relationship was terminated by the minor female in November, 1976. John's wife knew that her husband was engaging in sexual relations with the minor female during much of this time. She even discussed the situation with John and with the minor female, but she took no action to stop the relationship. John insisted that neither his wife nor the minor female tell anyone.
John and the minor female met frequently during the week in the afternoons after the minor female got out of school. As time passed, John, wearing his clerical collar, began picking up the minor female at school in his green Porsche automobile.
Furthermore, also not in dispute:
When John and the minor female were together in the afternoons after she got out of school, they used various rooms in the parish facilities for their sexual encounters. They also met on church property during the summer months when the minor female was not in school. Appellant was often not at the Church in the afternoons. That was the time he regularly made hospital calls.
Okay, so John is a child molester. But what of his brother? The record also includes:
During the summer of 1973 John Bennison and the minor female were together in a Sunday School class room with the door closed, engaged in some type of sexual activity not described in the record. They heard Appellant callng for John Bennison and walking down a hall toward the room. When Appellant entered the room they were both fully clothed. Appellant saw the two of them in the room, and turned and left the room.
On another occasion during the summer of 1973 John Bennison and the minor female were engaged in sexual activities behind closed doors in a room that was par of the church office suite. They heard Appellant coming up the walkway to the building, so they quickly dressed. The minor female's recollection is that, at the time Appellant found them, she and John Bennison both had a "disheveled" appearance, but they were fully clothed. Once again, Appellant left the room almost immediately after entering it. On one of these two occasions, Appellant asked John Bennison something about Sunday School matters and, upon receiving an answer, left the room.
Now, I have to say there are only two realistic interpretations here. One is Charles Bennison knew exactly what was going on and turned a blind eye. Here's why it was a godawful reason to hire his brother in the first place - divided loyalties. One also has to wonder just how much his brother's sexual preferences were unknown to Charles Bennison before this. His brother was picking up 15 year old girls from school in a Porsche? How much of a tip off (not to say cliche) was that?
The other interpretation is that Charles Bennison is a clueless idiot. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but it's a pretty bad foundation for being in a profession that requires a great deal of understanding, discernment and wisdom, never mind being a bishop.
John Bennison's story is pretty sordid in itself and well documented here. To be honest, it paints a lot more people in the Episcopal Church than Charles Bennison in a poor light for covering up John Bennison's many abuses. One of the leading contenders for runner-up behind Charles Bennison is the recently retired Bishop Swing of California. Given the fact that the brothers Bennison are sons of a bishop, the old boys network was obviously working overtime.
The trial court of 2007 found that Charles Bennison had indeed committed conduct unbecoming a priest in covering up his brother's crimes, and that the statute of limitations did not apply because the offense was related to sexual abuse. Charles Bennison's appeal, heard in May 2010, hinged on the technicality of the nature of his own offense and whether the statute of limitations should apply. The appeal court came to the following conclusion:
For the reasons stated herein, we find that Appellant committed conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy. Because the statute of limitations has run on that offense, we have no choice under the canons of the Church but to reverse the judgment of the Trial Court finding that Appellant is guilty of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy under the First Offense. Prosecution is bared by the applicable statute of limitations and, for that reason, alone, we are compelled to order and we hereby order that the judgment of the Trial Cour is reversed and judgment is rendered here in favor of the Appellant on the First Offense.
The Judgment ofthe Trial Court finding that Appellant is gulty of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy under the Second Offense is reversed and judgment is rendered here in favor of the Appellant on the Second Offense.
In other words, guilty of both offenses, but not guilty on a technicality - namely that the statute of limitations does apply to conduct unbecoming a priest, aka covering up sexual abuse. So the moral of the story is - if you do cover up sexual abuse, make sure you cover it up for at least thirty years so you can walk away scot free.
It seems incredible that Charles Bennison can look at that trial report and decide that he is fit to resume his duties as a bishop in the Episcopal Church, let alone lead his old diocese. It's hardly an exoneration, and it certainly appears to me that the old boys network gave him one last hurrah on as slim a technicality as possible.
Where the diocese and Bennison go from here is anyone's guess, but the Bennison brothers are a flat out disgrace to the human race and it's sad that they got to perpetrate their shameful behavior on the Episcopal Church.
The one thing I am glad for is that we have female bishops and priests and in particular a female Presiding Bishop who should use this example to demolish the old boys network once and for all.