Epistles and barbs in Pennsylvania

Considering all that’s happened since a decision was rendered clearing the way for his reinstatement, today’s Philadelphia Inquirer asks, “Where does Bishop Bennison belong?” (Other than “under a cloud of suspicion,” the article seems to ask.) One thing’s for sure: the bishop appears to have a post-exilic mindset.

In an interview soon after he was restored to his post, Bennison called the denomination’s efforts to depose him “Machiavellian,” the charges against him “Kafka-esque,” and his suspension “craziness.” Church leaders wanted him out, he surmised, because of his sometimes-divisive leadership style and controversial financial priorities….

During his 33-month exile, he began each day with Mass and Communion at St. Clement’s Parish in Center City. He “got to know my children and grandchildren better,” worked out, studied theology and law, and read Franz Kafka’s surrealist novel The Trial, about a man sentenced for an unexplained crime.

He also read two books about Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army falsely accused and exiled in 1894 for treason. “The commandant rips everything off his uniform,” Bennison said, shaking his head in wonder, and recalling the abruptness with which he had to turn over his office keys, cell phone, and computer.

Meanwhile, Bennison claims to have received voluminous support from letter-writers. Well. At least we can say that the epistles – and barbs – have been quick to come from all sides, and are stacking up in Pennsylvania.

On Thursday of this past week, the Pennsylvania Standing Committee wrote again to the President of the House of Deputies, Bonnie Anderson:

Dear Bonnie,

The Standing Committee of the Diocese of Pennsylvania is deeply grateful for your support for the people of the Diocese of Pennsylvania and for your willingness to be open and honest with your communications to Bishop Bennison, The Presiding Bishop, and the people of The Episcopal Church on the matters confronting us in Pennsylvania. Since it was made public that Charles Bennison would be returning as Diocesan Bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania after an inhibition of almost three years we as a Standing Committee have strived to be open, honest, and transparent with the people of our beloved diocese.

The diocese is reeling with emotions and Bishop Bennison’s refusal to confront the truth of what has been determined concerning the findings of his Presentment continues to confuse and confound us. His most recent public communication, his response to your letter of September 1 to the witnesses in his Presentment, continues this pattern of disassociation with what has been determined. He states that “there is nothing in my forty-two-year ordained ministry to indicate that I have ever covered up or looked the other way when I have learned of sexual abuse” flies in the face of the fact that two courts have concluded that he was guilty of “conduct unbecoming a clergy person” in the case brought to light by the Presentment. This, added to his oft quoted remarks that he “has been vindicated,” along with his insistence that his actions at the time were “just about right,” concerns us greatly. He seems not to be able to grasp the reality that while his guilt is “unpunishable” two courts still concluded and stated that he was guilty.

We appreciate your continued effort to bring to light the awful position in which the diocese has been placed. We wish to thank you for your prayers and your good words for us, and for your good and honest work in bringing to light the need for canonical change. Please let us know how we might aid and support you as you prepare for the 2012 General Convention, particularly as it has to do with the writing of resolutions dealing with the situation we face in the Diocese of Pennsylvania.

In response to Bishop Bennison’s current letter to you we will, as he did, make this response available to Episcopal News Service. We will continue to respond to public statements made by Bishop Bennison that do not represent the truth but attempt to create an alternate reality.

God bless you and, once again, thank you for your support and your prayers as we strive to be about the business of the Kingdom in this corner of the Garden.


The Standing Committee of the Diocese of Pennsylvania…

This, after Bennison wrote to Anderson September 10th:

While you wrote out of genuine love and concern for our church, your public response of September 1 to the letter from the witnesses in the June 2008 Ecclesiastical trial has hurt the Diocese of Pennsylvania, made my ministry more difficult, and is so misleading as to raise the question whether you actually read all of the trial evidence on which your statements are based.

The Review Court found absolutely no evidence that I am among those who, in your words, “have been complicit in maintaining a climate of silence and denial that has inhibited our efforts to end sexual abuse within our church.” Your letter expressing your “outrage that individuals in positions of authority” have done so, falsely and unjustly implies culpability on my part. In fact, there is nothing in my forty-two-year ordained ministry to indicate that I have ever covered up or looked the other way when I have learned of sexual abuse.

Beginning with the Church Attorney’s first interview of me in February 2007, moreover, I have consistently expressed my remorse over the abuse as “totally wrong,” and my sincere regret that I hired my brother, trusted him, and was not sufficiently circumspect to become aware of his behavior earlier than I did. I do not think, however, that to demand of my brother, as I did, upon once having actual knowledge of his offense, that he report himself, or be reported by me, to our bishop, who then deposed him, can accurately be characterized, as it was by the Review Court, as “totally wrong.” Such is a gross mischaracterization, too, of my honoring of the victim’s privacy when in her nineteenth year I learned what she had suffered, of my fidelity to her parents’ subsequent, decades-long request for confidentiality, and of my consistent openness to inquiry into her abuse by church authorities. My record as bishop demonstrates unequivocally that I have handled clergy sexual abuse cases appropriately….

Legislatures frequently give voice to public reaction to court decisions, and it is understandable that in the heat of this moment the House of Deputies, you as its President, and your Council of Advice, would entertain changes in our canon law. In all fairness to the Church, to the Diocese of Pennsylvania, and to me, I would hope that, as you do so, you will thoroughly review all the facts of this particular case and my life’s work, be exacting in your reading of the canons, and honor our governance established in a rule of law.

Recall how clear Anderson has been about the poor taste left in the mouth of the church collective, and about how shortsighted she sees the currently available process as being. From September 1st, to the Standing Committee, in response to their request to both Anderson and Presiding Bishop Schori that they help continue in the cause of healing and progress:

In preparation for General Convention, a review of the canons relevant to these concerns is in order. I am presently in consultation with members of my council of advice, deputies and others with particular interest and knowledge in these matters to determine the most expedient and efficient way to proceed in this review.

I wish there were more that I could offer you in gratitude for your bravery in the face of all that you have endured at the hands of our Church. It grieves me to be another person telling you that my hands are tied, and I know the potential remedies that I am proposing may serve the church in the long-term but do nothing to right the wrongs inflicted upon you.

But within our polity, this is what is within my power to do. Please know that I will pursue these issues seriously and actively, and with the support and counsel of others in the church who also find this situation unacceptable.

So there you have it: a bishop uninterested in stepping aside (with five years remaining before reaching Birthday Number 72 and mandatory retirement), a Standing Committee scrapping hard, and one of the highest representatives of our General Convention advocating structural reform.

Oh, and the House of Bishops meeting in Arizona, and the feeling there’s a ball in their court. And all that that entails.

Sort of makes you wonder if that old saw about things getting worse before they get better might not apply.

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