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Sex scandal back to haunt bishop

Church panel to rule on failure to prevent teen's abuse in '70s

Normally, ballrooms are reserved for festive occasions - job conventions, award banquets, wedding receptions and the like.

But yesterday, on the fifth floor of the Philadelphia Marriott, a California family testified against a family friend whom they all had once affectionately referred to as "Chuck."

Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr., leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, is on trial by the church for "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy" in his handling of a 1970s sex scandal involving his brother - now a resigned priest - and a teenage parishioner.

A panel of nine judges - five bishops, two priests and two lay members of the church - is expected to hold trial until Thursday.

For four years, John Bennison, the bishop's brother, whom he had hired to lead a church youth group, had sexual relations with a teenager in the church in Upland, Calif., where Bennison was pastor when the events occurred.

The victim, now 50, told the court that about three to four times a week during the time she was in high school she was forced to do "things I didn't even know that people did," she said.

"He groomed me over time to be his sexual toy, I guess you could call it that," she said.

Bennison would pick her up after school in his green Porsche, and would often bring her back to the church, where, she said, they sometimes would have sex.

She told the court session of about 50 people that occasionally the bishop caught them in the act. One day he walked into a Sunday-school classroom to find his brother, then 25, and the then-15-year-old girl mostly undressed, she said.

"He seemed very flustered, surprised . . . ," she said of the cleric. "His cheeks were bright red and his nose was bright red." She said the bishop walked out of the classroom and never spoke of it to her family.

"I think I was hoping he would tell my parents," she said. "I wanted help."

The girl's mother, 76, said that when she thought back to her daughter's baptism in the church, she never would have believed that her family would later be making allegations against a family friend.

"I love Chuck."

When she telephoned Bishop Bennison after hearing from her daughter about the sexual abuse, she was surprised to find that he already knew about it.

"I wasn't prepared for that," she said. "I was in disbelief and shock and anger."

She said Bennison had told her he had not informed her of the abuse to protect her daughter's privacy and to avoid a parish scandal.

"She was a child," the mother said. "I believe that we as adults, especially in the church, that we need to take care of these young people. We have an obligation to protect them."

"It's very difficult to me to reconcile the words of Chuck . . . with the action or lack of actions," said the victim's brother.

After the call from the mother, the bishop confronted his brother, who left the priesthood in 1977, only to return in 1979. In 2006, after the allegations became public, he was forced to leave the priesthood.

According to the presentment against him, Bishop Bennison never disciplined his brother about the sexual abuse or prevent him from meeting with the victim or with other teenagers.

James Pabarve, Bennison's attorney, said that 30 years ago there was a lack of training and guidelines for such sexual situations in the church.

The Standing Committee of the Diocese of Pennsylvania agreed in November to forbid Bishop Bennison to perform any ministerial acts, and the committee has since acted in his stead.

The court will vote on the bishop's fate within 30 days after the end of the trial this week. *