Victim testifies at church trial for bishop

June 9, 2008 6:07:59 PM PDT
A bishop accused of concealing sexual abuse by his brother decades ago twice walked in while his brother was sexually abusing a teenage girl and did nothing to stop the abuse that continued for years, the now-adult victim testified Monday. The testimony came as the trial opened for Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, who is accused of concealing the sexual abuse of a 14-year-old girl by his brother, then a lay minister at a California church where Bennison was rector.

A panel of bishops, priests and church members will decide whether Bennison, the leader of the nation's fifth-largest Episcopal diocese, may resume his duties. Bennison, 64, was ordered to cease all "ministerial and canonical acts" in November.

The victim, now 50, said Charles Bennison witnessed incidents in a Sunday school classroom and in a church office in 1973.

"He opened the door, took a look at us, turned around and walked out," the victim testified.

The AP typically does not identify victims of sexual abuse.

The victim said the abuse by the bishop's brother, John Bennison, happened three to four times a week for more than four years. The abuse happened in the choir loft, the library, church offices and classrooms, she said.

She also said the episodes turned her from a self-described nerd who enjoyed school, sewing and church into a young adult battling suicidal thoughts, depression, eating disorders and alcohol abuse.

"I really felt like John had stolen God from me because he told me what was going on between us was God's special gift and God's will," she testified.

She said there was "no doubt in my mind" that Charles Dennison knew of the ongoing abuse.

At the time of the reported 1973 abuse, Bennison was rector of St. Mark's Church in Upland, Calif., in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and his brother was a married lay minister there.

The church indictment, called a presentment, charges that Bennison reacted "passively and self-protectively" and "failed to take obvious, essential steps to investigate his brother's actions, protect the girl from further abuse, and find out whether other children were in danger."

The church indictment also charges that Bennison continued to "fail in his duties" by knowing about the abuse but not stopping his brother's 1974 ordination. John Bennison, who never faced criminal charges, left the priesthood two years ago.

Charles Bennison's attorney, James Pabarue, testified that Bennison did nothing wrong. At the time, the church did not have any guidelines in place for reporting sexual abuse, Pabarue said.

"Charles Bennison, then a 31-year-old parish rector, handled the situation he faced in a manner he believed to be correct and appropriate at that time," Pabarue said in his opening statement. He said Bennison did confront his brother, who denied the accusations.

Charles Bennison also never faced criminal charges.

Earlier Monday, the victim's mother testified that Charles Bennison once told her that he had known about the abuse but didn't think it was up to him to tell the family.

The 76-year-old mother of the victim testified that she found out about the abuse when her daughter was in college and confronted Bennison, who said he had known about it but thought it was the girl's place to tell her family.

The mother is not being identified by The Associated Press to protect the identity of the victim.

Under cross-examination by Pabarue, the victim's mother acknowledged that she and her husband remained friendly with Charles Bennison and his wife for years after the abuse, and continued going to his church. Pabarue also had the woman read aloud letters in which Charles Bennison expressed sorrow about the abuse and offered to help her daughter.

The woman also acknowledged during cross-examination that the family did not go public with their accusations against Charles Bennison until 2006. Their priorities had been getting John Bennison out of the priesthood and helping their daughter get counseling, she said.

Church lawyer Larry White said in his opening statement that Charles Bennison did not put a stop to the sexual abuse, which started when the girl was 14, and did not alert the church.

A special Court for the Trial of a Bishop was chosen to hear the evidence and announce within 30 days its verdict on whether the bishop may resume his duties.

The nine-judge panel includes five bishops, two priests and two lay people. The trial is expected to last about four days.

A 10-member diocesan standing committee has assumed Bennison's duties since November.

Charles Bennison was chosen in 1998 to head the Pennsylvania diocese, which has 53,000 members in Philadelphia and four suburban counties.

Diocesan conservatives have long criticized Bennison's liberal stances on gay marriage and gay ordination. The diocesan standing committee has sought his removal for several years, accusing him of misusing diocesan assets.

---

On the Net:

Presentment: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/documents/Bennison-Presentment.pdf

Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania: http://www.diopa.org


Load Comments