Two years ago an Episcopal church court defrocked the Bishop of Pennsylvania, Charles Bennison, after finding that in the 1970s he failed to act on information that his brother, while youth minister at his parish, sexually abused a 14-year-old girl in the congregation.
But on Aug. 4, a church appeals board overturned that verdict and said Bennison could be reinstated as head of the Philadelphia-based diocese, in part because the 10-year statute of limitations on the charges against him had expired.
The appeals panel overruled the original court on one of two judgments of "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy." On the second charge, while agreeing that Bennison was "totally wrong" in his actions, it said "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."
"Accordingly, the inhibition of Bishop Bennison has been dissolved, and he is free to resume his role as Bishop of Pennsylvania," the board said in its 39-page decision
A day after the ruling Bennison, 66, welcomed the decision, saying "I always thought the charges were without merit." He said he planned to return to his office on Aug. 16 and would lead the 55,000-member diocese as bishop until the mandatory retirement age of 72, "if it seems appropriate and in the best interest of the church."
Bishop Bennison told The Philadelphia Inquirer
he believes he is "a changed person," but he still thinks the prosecution in 2008 was politically motivated because many clergy and laity in the diocese had been upset with his leadership and wanted him gone. "This process should never have begun," he said Thursday.
The proceedings against Bennison were sparked by the 2006 revelation that while he was rector of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Upland, Calif., he failed to tell civil or church authorities that his brother, church Youth Minister John Bennison, was "engaged in a sexually abusive and sexually exploitative relationship" with a 14-year-old girl. John Bennison, 24 at the time, was a newly ordained deacon, hired by Charles Bennison in the early 1970s as youth minister. The alleged abuse lasted for three years.
John Bennison was later ordained a priest though he was deposed in 1977 for an unrelated offense, and then was restored to the priesthood in 1980. He was defrocked again in 2006 when the earlier abuse charges became public.
Victims of clergy sexual abuse, who spend much of their time denouncing similar episodes in the Catholic Church, blasted the rehabilitation of Bishop Bennison.
"This is just what shrewd and corrupt church officials do -- relentlessly fighting, exploiting every possible legal maneuver, to cling to their precious power, even when their wrong-doing has been so clearly proven," said Barbara Dorris, outreach director of SNAP
, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "This is yet more proof that internal church processes are highly flawed and that it's best to report child sex crimes and cover ups through the criminal and civil justice systems. It's also more proof that statutes of limitations only protect wrong-doers and should be abolished."
While stories like this are usually associated with the Catholic Church, there seem to be increasing indications that all denominations have skeletons in their sex abuse closets.
Last month it was revealed that the former head of the Episcopal Church, Bishop Edmund L. Browning, learned in 1993 that Bishop Donald Davis of the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania had sexually abused as many as nine girls. Browning told Davis (who has since died) to resign as bishop, refrain from public ministry, and seek counseling, which Davis did. But Browning, who is retired, never alerted civil authorities or investigated the charges.
Also last month, the first woman ever elected as a Lutheran bishop resigned as head of her northern German diocese over charges
that she failed to thoroughly investigate reports of a sexually abusive pastor, though the bishop, Maria Jepsen, 65, said she could not recall being told of the abuse cases.