A lawyer for the Episcopal Church told a panel of judges this morning that Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr., leader of the five-county 55,000-member Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, failed to protect an underage girl from the predatory sexual behavior of his brother in the 1970s.

The lawyer, Larry White, told the nine-judge Court for the Trial of a Bishop panel, that Bennison, 64, compounded his wrongful inaction by shirking his responsibility in the matter, as he rose through the church's ranks in later years.

White said that Bennison's brother, John, then a 24-year-old married staffer in their church in Upland, Calif., had groomed a 14-year-old church parishioner as a "sexual target."

Bennison's attorney, James Pabarue, argued that his client had not been trained by the church to handle such matters and followed his own instinct to try to avoid scandal for the victim and the church.

He said Bennison confronted his brother about the rumored affair and "John Bennison lied to him."

Pabarue said that church leaders learned of the abuse in later years but never brought charges against Bishop Bennison until now.

Bennison Jr. still wears a purple vest, a pectoral cross, and an engraved gold ring - symbols of his stature as leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania.

But today, nine judges from around the country are beginning to consider whether this white-haired and controversial prelate, suspended from office in the fall, improperly concealed his brother John's sexual abuse of a minor decades ago. Eventually, they are to decide if he may continue as head of the five-county, 55,000-member diocese. The judges are meeting at the Philadelphia Marriott Hotel.

"The allegations are sensational," Pabarue, his lawyer, said in a lengthy interview Thursday. But they are "half-truths," he added, concocted by parties in the diocese eager for Bennison's ouster.

Jack Henn, a former member of the diocesan council, disagreed. In an e-mail, he called the abuse and its alleged concealment "a terrible injustice."

Bennison's leadership style displayed "a pattern of untruths and imperial tactics," Henn continued, "that "finally caught up with him."

This is be just the third trial of a bishop in the 232-year history of the Episcopal Church USA. The judges are five bishops, two priests and two laypeople.

The trial is expected to last several days. The judges are likely to take several weeks before issuing a verdict.

If found guilty, Bennison can be reprimanded, suspended, or removed permanently from all clerical offices in the Episcopal Church. He can appeal.

Like all witnesses and other principals in the case, Bennison has been instructed by the court not to talk to reporters.

That injunction did not stop Pabarue, a big, extroverted Center City lawyer with a gray goatee who specializes in employment law.

"I can't believe they want to go ahead and have these documents exposed," he said at a conference table in his office as he pushed across a stack of letters by various bishops.

The letters indicate that many prominent bishops of the Episcopal Church, including some who endorsed and one who consecrated Bennison as bishop, have known about his handling of his brother's abuse for decades.

"So why are we here?" Pabarue asked. "Because the standing committee of the diocese" - approximately equivalent to a board of directors - "is using half-truths to force Bishop Bennison out of the diocese."

Michael F. Rehill, the diocese's chancellor, or chief legal officer, called Pabarue's assertion "totally false."

"The standing committee . . . had nothing to do with the charges or the investigation that led to the presentment now pending against Bishop Bennison," Rehill wrote in an e-mail Friday.

"This case is in no way motivated by the belief shared by all of the members of the standing committee that Bishop Bennison should resign, but rather is the product of an independent investigation conducted in accordance with the canons of the Episcopal Church."

Bennison became bishop of the diocese in May 1998.

Last October, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori suspended him after a review committee of the Episcopal Church concluded he had "engaged in conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy."

The committee's 12-page "presentment," or indictment, asserts that in the mid-1970s, Bennison, then rector of St. Mark's Parish in Upland, Calif., concealed his brother John's sexual abuse of a teenage girl. The abuse allegedly began in 1973 when the girl was 14 and John was the parish youth minister, and lasted nearly five years.

The core issue is what Charles Bennison knew and when he knew it.

Pabarue said Bennison had learned of the abuse only when the girl was 17, and had immediately told his brother that he would have to leave the parish.

But the victim, who has asked to remain anonymous, has said Bennison walked in on his brother and her twice long before that and either failed to recognize the sexual nature of their situation or ignored it.

And a former vestrywoman of the parish said she had told Bennison early on that the affair was common knowledge among its teenagers. Bennison "did not seem to take the news seriously and did not appear to be surprised," she told church investigators recently.

Bennison's "first instinct was to protect his brother rather than to care for his parishioners," the presentment asserts, alleging that he did so to protect his career.

John Bennison resigned from the priesthood in June 2006 after a San Francisco TV station reported the story.

The Rev. Glenn Matis, president of the diocesan standing committee, said he would not comment on Pabarue's remarks or discuss the trial.

Nevertheless, Bennison's strained relations with the committee have been public for years. Members have complained that he has repeatedly misled or circumvented them to pursue his goals.

One major quarrel has been over Bennison's committing roughly $12 million, much of it from endowment funds, to develop a summer camp and diocesan retreat center in Maryland. The cost of acquiring the site, which is closed, has forced the diocese to lay off staff, scale back programs, and close parishes.

Bennison has also incensed parties in and beyond the diocese for his handling of the Rev. David Moyer, an outspoken conservative critic and rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont.

In 2002, Bennison suspended Moyer for six months after Moyer repeatedly barred him from preaching or dispensing sacraments at the parish because of his liberal views.

Moyer abided by the suspension but tentatively accepted an invitation from a conservative-traditionalist Episcopalian group to become its bishop.

Although Moyer later declined the ordination, Bennison defrocked him, then refused him a church trial - the standard method of appeal - on the ground that he had "broken communion" with the Episcopal Church.

When then-Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold wrote to Bennison urging him to reverse course, Bennison concealed the letter from the standing committee.

(Montgomery County Court has since agreed to hear Moyer's civil suit against Bennison, which says the bishop fraudulently removed him from his job. Moyer, who still serves as rector of Good Shepherd Parish, is seeking millions of dollars in damages.)

The standing committee was so upset by Bennison's concealment of Griswold's letter, and by what it alleges were Bennison's repeated circumventions of its authority, that in January 2006 its 10 members unanimously demanded his resignation.

When Bennison refused, the committee members asked the presiding bishop to remove him, citing a "total breakdown of trust." The same review committee that ordered tomorrow's trial is reviewing their complaint.

Since Bennison's presentment in October, the standing committee has been operating as the office of bishop, pending the outcome of the trial.

If the court decides in his favor, Bennison said in a recent conversation, he intends to return to his duties as bishop of Pennsylvania, where he may serve until he is 72.

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.