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Bishop Bennison wins his appeal

2010 August 5
by Gordon Reid

The news that a Church appeal court, consisting of eight Bishops (a ninth recused himself) has reversed the findings of the verdict against Bishop Bennison has burst upon an astonished Church.

But I cannot understand why this should be so. As the appeal court said, the Bishop was never at any time accused of an immoral act, and it has now been shown (as he always asserted) that he had no knowledge of his brother’s crime until long after the event. Then, he remained silent at the request of the parents of the girl involved, who felt that publicity would hurt her.

It may well be that Bishop Bennison should have been more suspicious of his brother and made more vigorous attempts to find out what was really going on, but this hardly constitutes condoning immoral (and criminal) actions.

In the appeal court’s judgement, it is interesting that they make it clear that it is quite improper for those who disapprove of a Bishop’s theological opinions or use (or abuse) of Church funds to use an accusation of “conduct unbecoming a clergyman” as a way to remove him, which makes me think that they saw some evidence that this was what was happening. After all, it was only when another court found that there was no evidence of Bishop Bennison’s misusing Church monies that the present charges were brought.

The Bishop may choose to return as our Diocesan, or he may choose to retire and pursue his ministry as a Bishop of the Episcopal Church
elsewhere. I, for one, am glad that the ludicrously severe sentence of (purportedly) reducing him to the lay state has been shown for the nonsense it always was.

24 Responses leave one →
  1. August 5, 2010

    I agree. He probably thought this matter was dealt with long ago and over. It seems at first the Episcopalians threw him under the bus in a show of even-handedness for their conservatives.

  2. Scott permalink
    August 5, 2010

    I think the court of appeals found that time had run out on the “conduct unbecoming” charge and had no choice but to reverse the lower court’s ruling. See “Conclusion” on p. 38 of the PDF:

  3. Paul Goings permalink
    August 5, 2010


    In fact, the appellate tribunal specifically made mention of the dangers of the misuse of Title IV:

    “The sexual abuse exception to the statute of limitations, if improperly applied, can wrongfully label a Respondent a sexual abuser. Title IV courts must guard against allowing that exception to be used without proof of actual sexual abuse. This is especially true under circumstances where the exception is invoked not so much to deal with sexual abuse but, rather, as an effort to use events in the distant past when the Respondent was a priest to remove a bishop during current times of strife within the diocese. To allow Title IV and the sexual abuse exception to the statute of limitations to be used in this manner diminishes the monumental efforts of the Church to address, punish and remove incidents of actual clergy sexual abuse. It runs the risk of labeling a bishop as a sexual abuser when the origin of the charges is based upon the individual’s alleged poor performance as a bishop and not upon the individual’s being a sexual abuser. For that reason Title IV courts must be vigilant when confronted with charges against a bishop of sexual abuse based upon conduct as a priest many years earlier.”

    This clearly implies, at least to me, that this was their perception of the manner in which the original proceedings were conducted. The use of “clearly erroneous” in several places further reinforces this.

  4. Mr DG Fulton permalink
    August 5, 2010

    I’m both surprised and impressed that the court had the good sense to put this nonsense to a stop. The Episcopal Church seems to have a penchant for creating embarrassing public spectacles and the occasional political circus, but it’s nice to have at least one of them end.

    Bishop Bennison has announced that he’ll be returning to his duties as Bishop of Pennsylvania on August 16. I, for one, am happy he decided to come back.

  5. August 5, 2010

    I don’t know, father. the Appeals Court did say that he was guilty of conduct unbecoming. Idon’t think that is a total vindication on his part.

  6. August 6, 2010

    I don’t know what to think. All I know is that I am upset. I find it hard to believe that he did not know what his brother was up to. And the Church has a “zero tolerance policy” about abuse- whether it happened today or 30 years ago it must not be swept under the rug. I support that. I will try to give him the benefit of the doubt but…

    I suppose this means losing +Michel very soon, which makes me very sad. I like +Michel a lot and I thought I was going to interact with him more. I am in the discernment process to be a deacon and he started the new program and started me on my way. I have no idea what +Bennison is like with deacons.
    This threw me for a loop. I don’t know what to do. I need to talk..

  7. Jay Blossom permalink
    August 8, 2010

    The whole church court system is hopeless. Why do we even have it? Bishop Bennison should have been removed from office years ago, when the extent of his ineptitude, self-centeredness, heresy, and lack of leadership became evident. The charges were clearly seen as a way to get him out, because we seem to have no other way.

    Now we have him back. And if you think he’s going to retire gracefully, then I believe you are living in a dream world. He’s been asked to retire many, many, many times, and he has persisted, in his arrogance, in saying that he still is needed, still has a job to do.

    I would never, ever give money to any nonprofit organization that had a man like Charles Bennison as its executive director. Why are the church’s standards so low, that we will permit Charles Bennison to continue as our diocesan leader, when he’s proved himself incompetent?

  8. August 10, 2010

    Jay, I understand your outrage. I do not know much about Bennison’s handling of money. I know that you know a thing or 2 about churches and finances ;-) I’d trust you as a leader!
    What saddens me is that people will now look at TEC and say, “Oh they are no better than the RCC with the pedophile clergy coverups.” Just when the Dio of PA was starting to get a nice image back THIS happens!

    You can reverse a verdict but you can’t unring a bell. Damage is done.
    I am also disappointed our presiding bishop has made no comment. I admire her a lot so I’m really let down.
    Do you think there’s a chance that the lay and ordained of the Diocese will get together and have a vote whether to keep him or not? (Perhaps at the next convention). I am not sure what the canons permit.

    • Jay Blossom permalink
      August 10, 2010

      If people say, “They’re no better than the Catholic church,” I’ll have to agree. In fact, I will say, “Our bishops, like the Catholic bishops, are primarily interested in protecting their own.”

      Whatever this is, it’s not Christianity. Neither Bishop Bennison nor his bishop-protectors seem to be interested in following Christ.

  9. Paul Goings permalink
    August 12, 2010

    I see that Fr Safford of Christ Church has now gone off in a fit of histrionics in an open letter to Dr Bennison posted on his parish’s web site. I know that he’s disappointed that he won’t be able to start his campaign to run for the See of Pennsylvania as soon as he’d thought until recent events intervened, but really the man needs grow up and not act like a spoiled child.

  10. August 15, 2010

    Another Rector- in Wayne, PA, has asked him to resign:

  11. Paul Emmons permalink
    August 15, 2010

    How many parishes in the diocese continued to intercede for “Charles, our bishop” during the years of these proceedings? I’m afraid that a minority have done so. But S. Clement’s did, and it is one of those things that make me proud of my parish. Even if he might not be one of our favorite people, he has remained a bishop and our bishop throughout, as well as a person and not an instant unperson. Some in this diocese seem to have preferred Orwellian Newspeak over plain facts, and that is not entirely honorable.

    Furthermore, in reply to those who dismiss Bishop Bennison as a wild heretic who no longer says the creed, I understand that as Ordinary he has so insisted on its use in Sunday morning services as to require an explanation from a rector after any occasion in which it has been omitted, even if by accident.

    • August 16, 2010

      I’m less concerned with Bishop Bennison’s beliefs (which in Catholic theology don’t matter really) than with Episcopalianism’s official ones but that’s beyond the scope of this discussion (and I won’t start parroting conservative clich├ęs). While I now agree with the critics that the court was right about conduct unbecoming, he got off on a technicality and he ought to retire, I like S. Clement’s old-school honour and sticking to the letter of canon law (versus basing actions only on feelings) by continuing to commemorate him. Like the convoluted logic I imagine in Fr Joiner’s day at Clem’s that led to Clem’s hope back then of the Episcopal Church corporately reuniting with Rome.

  12. Jay Blossom permalink
    August 16, 2010

    At St. Mark’s, we have prayed for “Charles our bishop” every single day. I’m not sure what is meant by “Owellian Newspeak” in this instance.

    I think one of my points is that in any healthy organization, Charles Bennison would have been removed from office years ago, and it wouldn’t have required a quasi-legal proceedings to do so. (Speaking of Newspeak! Our church “legal” system is a ridiculous farce.)

    I hope that doesn’t offend Anglo-Catholic sensibilities. Does Anglo-Catholicism requires us to stand behind a bishop who teaches heresy, spends money unethically, goes back on his word, and drives our diocese into the ground? Do we have any recourse? Or is it just “pray, pay, and obey”?

    This isn’t a cult. We don’t have to drink the Kool-Aid and die if he tells us to.

    • August 16, 2010

      I think it depends on what you mean by ‘teaching heresy’, which throughout Anglo-Catholicism’s history has been true of most Anglican bishops, who were decidedly Protestant! To use a famous Roman Catholic example of Catholic sacramentology, Talleyrand was an atheist but as long as he ordained using the Roman Rite – meaning to do what the church does – then no problem.

      The big question isn’t what Bishop Bennison teaches but what Episcopalianism officially teaches by General Convention.

      The bishop can be an SOB but canonically there’s nothing you can do and sacramentally it doesn’t matter. The statute of limitations ran out on ‘conduct unbecoming’.

      So unless he says ‘For I acknowledge my faults: and my sin is ever before me’ and retires like a decent chap, he’s still your bishop.

    • Paul Emmons permalink
      August 16, 2010

      No, we don’t need to “support him.” We can ask him to retire all we want (which would be a more diplomatic way of putting it than “resign”, and we might get somewhere. He’s age 66. Anyone over 60 who has been in a job for a number of years at least deserves the courtesy of being said to retire).

      But meanwhile he is our bishop. We pay our financial dues to support the diocese, or at least the episcopate, and he is welcome to make his official visitations. He even told me once (the first time I met him, actually) that he is often “a Clementine” at weekday morning masses, because few other parishes bother celebrating them anymore. I’m not privy to anything behind the scenes, but as far as I can see, he makes no trouble for us– unlike with certain other parishes as we all know.

      It has often happened in Anglo-Catholic history, I gather, that even hostile bishops find us to be some of their best friends when the chips are down, simply because of the regard in which we hold their office. Feeling that one needs to shop around for an alternate bishop who is more simpatico than the diocesan actually reeks of Protestantism, and I’m glad we don’t see the need.

  13. Jay Blossom permalink
    August 16, 2010

    I’m not questioning his sacramental role or the efficacy of sacraments. He won’t “retire like a decent chap,” because he’s not a decent chap.

    This diocese is not just some kind of spiritual entity. It’s an organization, and he is the chief executive. He’s an exceptionally bad chief executive, and the organization was far better run while he was away.

    I really object to “canonically there’s nothing you can do.” If the canons are not serving Christ and his people, then the canons are wrong and should be altered.

    An Anglo-Catholicism that’s primarily concerned about whether the correct rites were used, but is not concerned about the heart, soul, mind, love of God, and love of neighbor — well, that seems like the most soul-deadening religion I can think of. Jesus had a phrase for it: “whitewashed tombs.”

  14. August 17, 2010

    Apparently the Standing Committeee does not wnat him back. From
    “We do not believe that Bishop Bennison has the trust of the clergy and lay leaders necessary for him to be an effective pastor and leader of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, nor that he can regain or rebuild the trust that he has lost or broken.

    We believe that it would be in the best interest of the Diocese that Bishop Bennison not resume his exercise of authority here.”

    So….what happens now? Does the SC have the final say or can he still come back to work?

  15. Jay Blossom permalink
    August 17, 2010

    The standing committee does not have the final say. That’s why they put their request in a public letter — because they do not have authority in this matter. If they had authority, they would have dealt with it privately, through lawyers.

    The bishop will return!

  16. Marcus D permalink
    August 18, 2010

    With all due respect, did you actually read the decision by the Court of Review?

    “Bennison’s failure to confront the situation with his staff member was a mistake. It was wrong. It demonstrates poor judgment, and it is not the conduct expected of members of the clergy.

    Bennison testified that, upon reflection on his failure to act, he concludes that his actions were “just about right.” They were not just about right. They were totally wrong. Appellant’s testimony on this subject revealed impaired judgment with regard to the conduct that is the subject of the First Offense and that is clearly and unequivocally conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.”

    There occurs a phenomenon in psychology wherein the the more docile or submissive in a relationship may begin to adopt some of the psychopathology of the more dominant. Could that be what is happening in this tragic situation as between Bennison and his followers?

  17. August 19, 2010

    Apparently the Inquirer has been reading this blog. They quoted some of us:

  18. August 30, 2010

    Besides the admirable ‘trusting the canons’ rather than relying on feelings to govern these matters (yes, hooray for the rule of law), and the theological objection to Donatism, of course a reason for S. Clement’s to cheer Bishop Bennison’s return for the foreseeable future is practical, nothing to do with liberalism or his alleged misconduct 30-some years ago. He’s a known quantity, unlike a future diocesan who may well be a woman who’d refuse Clem’s a flying bishop. No different really from the mainstream Episcopalians who were past diocesans: let him visit, pay him all the respect due his office and you get to practise Tridentine Anglo-Papalist liturgics unhindered.

    I rather like Fr Alexander’s point that it’s wrong to try to dredge up decades-old misdeeds to try to solve present-day problems unrelated to them (financial ineptitude, simply not liking the person etc. … witch hunt). That said, although again I think I understand Clem’s reason, again I think he ought to do the decent thing and retire. Because if not for the statute of limitations, out he’d go.

    • Sean W. Reed permalink
      September 22, 2010

      Of course, the House of Bishops calling on him to step down, is quite a slam!

      PHOENIX, AZ: House of Bishops to Charles Bennison: “RESIGN”

      “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.”

      [September 21, 2010] The House of Bishop of The Episcopal Church, meeting in Phoenix, AZ, approved the following resolution:

      Grace to you and peace in Jesus Christ our Lord. As the bishops of The Episcopal Church, bound by solemn vows to share in the governance of the whole church, guard its unity, and defend those who have no helper, we are committed to safeguarding the dignity of every person entrusted to our care. We are devoted especially to the care of the young, the weak, and those most vulnerable among us. Because of the depth of these commitments, long held among us, we are profoundly troubled by the outcome of the disciplinary action against the Bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, The Right Reverend Charles E. Bennison, Jr.

      In a lengthy judicial process Bishop Bennison was found guilty on two counts of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy during a lengthy judicial process. Subsequently, the Court of Review reversed one count, upheld one count, but vacated the sentence because the statute of limitations had expired. 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 wholly inadequate response of our brother bishop to the sexual assault upon a minor is an inexcusable violation of his ordination vows. We note here two excerpts from the decisions of the ecclesiastical court:

      The tragedy of this conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy is exacerbated by the fact that, during the trial of the case, Appellant testified that, upon reflection on his failure to act, he concludes that his actions were “just about right.” They were not just about right. They were totally wrong. Appellant’s testimony on this subject revealed impaired judgment with regard to the conduct that is the subject of the First Offence and that is clearly and unequivocally conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy. (Court of Review, page 25).

      … 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 . . . (Court of Review, page 38).

      The bishops of this church stand in unequivocal solidarity with anyone who has been sexually abused or mistreated by a member of our clergy or by any member of our 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. 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.

      As the House of Bishops, we have come to the conclusion that Bishop Bennison’s 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. 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.

      This matter has weighed heavily upon the hearts of every member of the House of Bishops and it has been held in prayer not only among us, but by the good and faithful clergy and people of our church. We will continue to pray for Charles, his family, and every person who has been hurt by the church. We pledge to continue to seek God’s guidance and we resolve to lead our church with compassion, justice, and mercy.”


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