Episcopal Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr., on trial within his church for concealing his brother's sexual abuse of a minor, testified yesterday that he learned about the abuse only when the girl was 17 and at the time believed he had "acted appropriately."
"I never thought my conduct was problematic," Bennison, 64, said during direct examination by his attorney.
Bennison was the young rector of St. Mark's Parish in Upland, Calif., in 1973 when his brother John, a parish youth minister, began having sex with a 15-year-old girl, Martha Alexis.
In response to questions from his attorney, James A. Pabarue, Bennison defended his failure in not informing his diocesan superiors about his brother's abuse, telling the girl's parents, or offering her any counseling.
"I was confused," he said, adding that he "didn't want to embarrass or shame" the girl, who was then 17, by telling her parents.
"People would see it as immoral activity, not sex abuse," he said. "I wasn't thinking about her age."
He said he did not ask about his brother's relationship with her or offer her counseling because he thought she would probably deny it - as John Bennison had - and because he did not feel she particularly liked him.
The victim, who is now 50 and goes by another name, told the court Monday that early during the relationship Charles Bennison had twice discovered her and his brother involved in sex but said and did nothing.
Charles Bennison said yesterday he had "no recollection" of ever surprising his brother and the girl. "There was nothing I saw," he said.
On Tuesday a former member of the vestry testified that when she warned Bennison in 1975 that one of her sons had referred to Alexis as "John's woman," the clergyman showed no surprise and took no action.
Bennison said that he believed the vestrywoman's warning and that he angrily confronted his brother, telling him: "Get your stuff and get out of here."
But because John Bennison was due to be ordained a priest that same month and would leave for another parish in the fall, Charles Bennison allowed him to stay on as youth minister without supervision.
The victim told the court Tuesday that John Bennison had continued the abuse during those months and that it became more "degrading."
John Bennison was ordained a priest in 1975. He resigned in 2006 after a San Francisco television station reported the abuse.
In October, the Episcopal Church USA suspended Charles Bennison for "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy" and charged him with failing to protect the young victim or notify his church superiors of the abuse.
Pabarue later presented the bishop with a number of documents, including e-mails, that he said strongly suggested the current trial had been instigated by members of the diocesan standing committee, which has sought Bennison's ouster for several years.
The Rev. William Wood, who was president of the standing committee at the time and whose name appears on several of the e-mails, refused to testify for the defense, Pabarue told the court yesterday.
Earlier in the day, John Bennison's ex-wife, Maggie Thompson, said that members of the church standing committee contacted her after the 2006 televised report and that she shared some of her letters from Charles Bennison and other information with them.
"I think I described John Bennison's behaviors and the inaction [Charles] took," she said.
The nine judges of the Court for the Trial of a Bishop will decide whether to remove Bennison permanently from all clerical office or allow him to return as head of the five-county Diocese of Pennsylvania, which he has led for 10 years.
The trial, being held in a Center City hotel, is expected to conclude today with Bennison's cross-examination by attorneys for the Episcopal Church acting as prosecutors.