Bennison trial – Day 2

UPDATED – (Day 3, 1pm, again 6pm)

Jerry Hames, editor emeritus of Episcopal Life, is attending the trial in Philadelphia for ELO. He reports on the events in court on Tuesday:

Key witnesses for the prosecution testified during the second day of the ecclesiastical trial of Pennsylvania Bishop Charles Bennison that he failed to act responsibly 35 years ago when he was told that his 24-year-old brother, John Bennison, whom he had hired for his parish’s youth ministry, was abusing a teenage girl in the youth group.

Schoener, who said he has worked with Episcopal groups since the 1980s and has received referrals from the director of the church’s Office of Pastoral Development since the ‘90s, said the norm in the 1970s, when the abuse of a teen occurred, was to initiate an investigation.

“That normally involves talking to young people, talking to parents and other adults who might have been around the youth group. You look for red flag behaviors, such as [someone] spending a lot of time alone with the person outside of normal group activities, doing favors for them or giving them gifts,” he said. Court was told John Bennison, married and a deacon, picked up the teen in his Porsche most days after school and drove her to the church where sexual relations occurred three or four times a week.

Under cross-examination, Schoener admitted that in the 50s, 60s and early 70s the church’s focus and training had not been on the abuse of children, but on adultery. The defense has argued in its cross-examinations that Charles Bennison, then a 31-year-old rector, lacked the training, guidelines and protocol for the situation he faced, but handled it the way he thought was appropriate, avoiding scandal, respecting the girl’s privacy and not informing her parents.

However, Schoener said that a person was usually suspended “if there was a high level of suspicion.”

The teen, Martha Alexis, now 50, testified June 10 that John Bennison stayed at the church for two months in the summer of 1975 after Charles Bennison, in his sworn deposition, said that he told John to leave. During that time John continued to lead activities of the youth group, without monitors or chaperones present, Martha said.

She said he also continued to have sexual relations with her afternoons and weekends during that time. “Nothing had changed,” she said.

“Was it as degrading,” asked the prosecutor, referring to her testimony a day earlier. “It was more so,” she replied.

Read Hames’ article here.

Philadelphia Daily News

“We look at our Lord Jesus as the model for good pastoring . . . he keeps away the wolves,” said Bishop David E. Richards, who was in the office of pastoral development at the time of the abuse.

Philadelphia Inquirer

Ann Allen, a former rector’s warden at the parish, told the court that she learned of the abuse when Alexis was about 15. … Allen recalled how one of her teenage sons had told his parents that Alexis was “John’s woman.”

But when she apprised Charles Bennison that there might be “something going on” between the girl and his brother, Bennison “just kind of shrugged and said, ‘That’s the way it is,’ or, ‘[That’s] the kinds of things that are happening.’ ”

She said Bennison later told her in a phone conversation: “I appreciate your not telling other people about this because it could negatively affect my career.”

The trial continues today. This post will be updated today as news reports warrant.

Update – Wednesday, 1pm. Philadelphia Inquirer:

Testifying for the defense, Bishop Harold Hopkins, former head of the Episcopal Church’s Office of Pastoral Development, acknowledged receiving several letters from the victim’s mother in 1992 and 1993. Hopkins said he discussed the charges with the then-presiding Bishop of the church, Edmund Browning. He said that in 1993 he also participated in a special intervention that included Bennison’s younger brother, John…

His acknowledgment of the letters and meetings are important to Bennison’s defense strategy. His lawyers are not attempting to defend Bennison’s admittedly poor handling of his brother’s abuse and his failure to protect the girl. They are seeking instead to establish that there is no valid reason to charge Bennison now when the facts of the case have been known for so long.

Their strategy ran into difficulty, however, when the church’s lead attorney, Larry White, acting as prosecutor, asked Hopkins if church leaders had had all the facts of the case years ago.

“No,” Hopkins replied.

White then asked if Hopkins would have voted for Bennison to become a bishop if he had known all the facts.

Hopkins replied, “I did not realize the extent to which it appears Bishop Bennison had a number of opportunities to reach out to the young woman… I think his handling and non-handling” of the situation “throws not a good light on his judgment.”

Update – Wednesday, 6pm. Philadelphia Inquirer:

Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. … took the stand in his church trial Wednesday.

He says people wouldn’t have seen it at the time as abuse, but would have seen it as what he called “immoral behavior” on the victim’s part.

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