A special committee of the Episcopal Church USA will consider allegations that Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. has spent more than $6 million in diocesan funds without proper authorization, and decide if he should face a church trial.
In an unrelated matter, the leaders of several major diocesan boards advised Bennison last week that the diocese faced a deficit of as much as $500,000 this year, and warned that it might not be able to pay bills by mid-summer.
Bennison, who heads the five-county Diocese of Pennsylvania, said yesterday he was confident he would not be charged and said he was working with diocesan leaders to resolve the financial crisis. He called the situation serious but said, "We will pay our bills."
Bennison, a leading liberal and gay-rights advocate, has long been unpopular with church conservatives. He has also come under siege from many quarters of the diocese for his fiscal management.
Critics complain he is devoting too many diocesan resources to developing a multimillion-dollar summer camp and conference center on the Chesapeake Bay, and on other building projects.
About 20 of the diocese's 162 parishes, which serve 80,000 worshippers, have withheld their pledges to the operating budget. Bennison said some were votes of no confidence in him, but some simply could not afford their pledges.
In November, the diocesan standing committee - a leading advisory board - filed a formal complaint with the denomination's presiding bishop, charging that Bennison had repeatedly drawn down diocesan endowment funds without the committee's approval.
A recent estimate put that sum about $6.3 million.
The Episcopal News Service reported yesterday that Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori - head of the U.S. Anglican church - had passed the standing committee's "verified complaint" on to a review committee of bishops.
There is no allegation that Bennison has taken diocesan money for his own use.
If the review committee, known as the Title IV Committee, concludes that Bennison violated church rules, it would issue a presentment, the ecclesiastical equivalent of an indictment. He would then face a trial of fellow bishops who would decide if he should continue to lead the diocese.
Bennison, 62, has repeatedly said he will not leave voluntarily until he reaches mandatory retirement at 72. He has been leader of the five-county diocese for 10 years.
Bennison said yesterday that the standing committee's allegations were groundless, and that the review was routine. He said he was "absolutely confident" the charges would be dismissed.
"I respectfully disagree," the Rev. Glenn Matis, president of the standing committee, said yesterday. "If he was the CEO of a corporation, I think his board of directors would have called him in by now."
On Thursday, William Powell, a member of the standing committee, said his review of diocesan assets found that Bennison had spent at least $6.37 million in unrestricted net assets between 2003 and 2006.
Among Powell's findings:
The Roberts Endowment for Christian Education Fund had gone from $122,000 to $5,222.
The Sherwood Endowment for church property aid had dwindled from $474,000 to $7,000.
The Moss Endowment for youth had shrunk from $129,000 to less than $2,000.
The All Souls Endowment for deaf ministry had shrunk from $175,000 to $2,615.
Bennison said yesterday that "all that money was spent without my permission."
He said he may have "tacitly" allowed use of the money by not objecting, but said all decisions to spend the endowments were made by Diocesan Convention, the Diocesan Council, and its property and finance subcommittee.
"The reason the standing committee or I did not object was because we did not know we had any authority over those funds," he said. "If I had known, I would have said there's a due process that has to be followed."
He nevertheless defended the use of dedicated endowments to pay for operating expenses.
The diocesan youth group is "one of the biggest and best" in the region, he said, "so money's not always so important." He also said he had been unable to find any clergy qualified to minister to the hearing-impaired.
Powell said he was flabbergasted that Bennison claimed he did not approve spending from the endowment.
Peter Wilmerding, chairman of the diocese's property and finance committee, was among the leaders who warned Bennison last Saturday of a possible financial crisis.
"If we don't make some changes, it's going to be tough to pay bills, given the current stream of income," Wilmerding said in a phone interview yesterday.
Wilmerding, who was the diocese's chief financial officer in the 1980s, said he did not believe removing Bennison would automatically solve the diocese's money problems.
"If we can build a sense of trust that we are managing diocesan affairs and finances in an appropriate manner, people will have more confidence in making their pledges to the diocese.
"It's not just a matter of one person leaving."