The 38-page decision of the Court of Review (caution -- .pdf download), dated July 28, 2010, is signed by eight of the nine bishops serving on the panel when the appeal was filed in March 2009. (The ninth member, the Rt. Rev. Wayne Wright of Delaware, recused himself for personal reasons.) The Rt. Rev. Clifton Daniel III, the Bishop of Eastern Carolina, served as Chair; the other members of the panel were the Rt. Rev. Chilton Knudsen, resigned (formerly diocesan of Maine); the Rt. Rev. D. Bruce MacPherson, Bishop of Western Louisiana; the Rt. Rev. Michael B. Curry, of North Carolina; the Rt. Rev. Duncan M. Gray III, of Mississippi; the Rt. Rev. Don E. Johnson, of West Tennessee; the Rt. Rev. S. Todd Ousley, of Eastern Michigan; and the Rt. Rev. Mary Gray-Reeves, of the Diocese of El Camino Real. None of the panel members has any formal legal training; however, the Court is advised by up to three Lay Assessors, who are attorneys knowledgeable in canon law.
The Court of Review's opinion begins by reciting in full the tortured procedural history of the trial and post-trial proceedings in Bishop Bennison's case. Bishop Bennison was never charged with sexual abuse toward the minor whom his brother sexually abused while he was her youth pastor; instead the charges were that Bishop Bennison had, while a rector supervising his younger brother, concealed the latter's unlawful conduct and failed properly to minister to the girl and to her parents, who were members of his congregation. That concealment, and failure to minister, along with subsequent charges that Bishop Bennison had failed to communicate his knowledge of his brother's conduct to Church authorities when the latter was reinstated to the clergy, constituted the bulk of the two counts in the presentment for "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy."
Since his brother's conduct occurred in the late 1970's, and Bishop Bennison found out about it soon afterward, the acts with which he was charged were all outside of the ten-year statute of limitations in Canon IV.14.4 (a) (1). The Court for the Trial of a Bishop, however, had found that the exception in section 14.4 (a) (2) applied, which provides:
The time limits of this Section shall not apply to Offenses the specifications of which include physical violence, sexual abuse or sexual exploitation, if the acts occurred when the alleged Victim was a Minor.
The Court of Review held that there was no question that this language would have enabled the presentment and trial of John Bennison (the younger brother) for the acts of abuse against the minor in his pastoral care, but held that "sexual abuse" formed no part of the "specifications" of the charges for conduct unbecoming a clergy actually brought against Charles Bennison. Here are the key paragraphs from the end of the decision:
The actions and the objects of those actions are enumerated in paragraph 48 of the Presentment: (a) failure to fire or suspend his brother immediately, (b) failure to investigate his brother's conduct, (c) and failure to discharge his pastoral obligations to (i) a 14 year old parishioner, (ii) the members of her family, and (iii) the members of the parish youth group. Those actions having consequences for the members of the victim's family and the parish youth group are not actions of which the minor female was the object. While they may be sufficient to be conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy, they are not actions that constitute sexual abuse of a victim as is defined in Canon iv. 15. To the extent the Trial Court relied upon those findings to apply the sexual abuse exception and allow a guilty verdict against Appellant, the Trial Court was clearly erroneous.
There remains only the issue of whether Appellant's inaction with regard to John Bennison's conduct - even when he had only suspicions about the conduct - constitutes sexual abuse of the minor female by Appellant. We canot engage in any speculation to conclude that, had Appellant - even without actual knowledge - only confronted John Bennison in 1973 or even in 1975, or had investigated or had taken steps to separate the minor female and John Bennison the sexual abuse by John Bennison would have stopped or would have been less adverse to the minor female. Any adverse effect upon the minor female by Appellant's inaction would not involve the direct, physical action by Appellant upon the minor female that is required to apply the sexual abuse exception of the statute of limitations.
For that reason, while we agree with the Trial Court that Appellant was guilty of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy, those actions do not constitute sexual abuse and, therefore, a Presentment for that offense cannot be made because it is bared by the applicable statute of limtations. The Trial Court was clearly erroneous in failng to apply the statute of limitations and, therefore, its judgment againt Appellant on the First Offense is hereby reversed.
The judgment of reversal also reverses the sentence of deposition pronounced upon Bishop Bennison by the Presiding Bishop following his trial, and brings to an end the period of inhibition to which he became subject when the Presentment issued. Bennison, who is 66, has not yet reached the age of mandatory retirement. The reversal of his deposition and the ending of his inhibition will effectively reinstate him in his position as Bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, where he has been in a long-standing feud with the Standing Committee. As a Bishop with jurisdiction, he may be removed only by voluntary retirement or resignation, or by action of his colleagues after trial and presentment, or by a vote of the full House of Bishops in the case of "abandonment of communion."
The decision by the Court of Review also calls into question the lengthy proceeding to which the witnesses most affected by John Bennison's abuse were subjected, in order to present evidence against his brother on charges that should have been barred by the statute of limitations. The applicability of the statute was repeatedly raised by Bishop Bennison's attorneys at the trial, and again in the convoluted post-trial proceedings.
The issue of how the relationship between Bishop Bennison and the diocesan Standing Committee will be resolved could also affect pending litigation which the Standing Committee instituted against the Church of the Good Shepherd in Bishop Bennison's absence. There remains a possibility of other charges being brought against Bishop Bennison, for conduct in his office as a bishop.
Before it knew of the decision by the Court of Review, the Standing Committee of the Diocese of Pennsylvania issued a letter to the Diocese, in which it indicated that they were mapping out plans for whichever way the decision went. Prayer is needed for all those in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, and for those outside of it, who are most affected by this result.