Elizabeth Evans

is a freelance writer and priest-in-charge at St. Mark's in Honey Brook

The case against local Episcopal Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr., who returned to his duties Monday, has lifted the veil on decades of silence and inaction toward sexual abuse of minors that reaches to the highest rungs of the church hierarchy.

The bishop had been inhibited for almost three years from functioning as leader of the five-county Diocese of Pennsylvania because of charges that he failed to act when his younger brother John, then a youth leader in Charles' parish, was accused of sexually preying on a teenage girl.

The ecclesiastical appeals court agreed with a 2008 church ruling that Bennison was guilty of "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy," but in reversing a ruling that he be defrocked, the court pointed out that because Bennison was not the abuser the statute of limitations on his misconduct had run out.

In explaining its ruling, the court pieced together a damning picture of an ineffectual church hierarchy that often seemed to prefer silence and collusion to the truth. But the court also pointed out - in my opinion with justice - that to be silent or even possibly willfully ignorant of abuse, as his opponents argue Bennison was, still doesn't make him a perpetrator.

Nonetheless, the charges were serious. Charles Bennison was accused of failing to respond appropriately to allegations of sexual abuse of a minor leveled against his brother John. In the 1970s, John was a youth minister training for the priesthood on the staff of Charles Bennison's Upland, Calif., parish.

The list of those who knew about the allegations reads like a bill of indictment against the church. There is no apparent evidence that secular authorities were ever notified, and the appeals court's 39-page ruling lays out in precise legal prose what has long been suspected about the lack of reporting on sexual abuse by many church officials:

Los Angeles Bishop Robert Rusack (now dead) learned of the accusations from John Bennison's ex-wife when Rusack restored John to the priesthood in 1979.

In 1993, the victim's mother detailed the allegations in a letter to Frederick Borsch, then the bishop of Los Angeles. She copied a number of other bishops and clergy, including priest Margo Maris, an advocate for abuse victims. To his credit, Borsch set up meetings between church authorities and the victim's family.

As the appeals court noted, the letter "included 'the part that Chuck (Appellant) played' and told of his knowledge of the events and his failure to tell the minor female's parents."

Soon after that, the victim's mother wrote to Edmond L. Browning, then the presiding bishop, to tell him of the alleged abuse and Charles Bennison's alleged role in a cover-up.

Browning is now retired, but his name recently surfaced in an unrelated case. It is alleged that he did not inform secular authorities when he learned in 1993 of allegations against Donald Davis, the former bishop of the Northwestern Pennsylvania diocese. Davis, who died in 2007, was accused of abusing several minor girls in the late 1970s and early '80s.

By the time Charles Bennison was a bishop candidate in the Diocese of Pennsylvania in 1996, a lot of people wielding power in the Episcopal Church knew of the serious allegations against him and his brother - and they chose to keep quiet. This information could have been decisive in the selection of a diocesan leader.

Allegations of such collusion have, with good reason, long roiled dioceses in the Roman Catholic Church, fueling accusations that church leaders are more interested in protecting their own interests, and those of their colleagues, than in truly protecting victims and prosecuting abusers.

Regrettably, this appears to also have been the case with a number of spiritual leaders in the Episcopal Church, men and women charged with shepherding the weakest and most vulnerable members of the flock.

In a teleconference this month, Charles Bennison said that he believed that the charges against him were "without merit." And it is certainly true that they were fueled by infighting that has put Bennison at odds with other local church leaders for a decade.

Yet the verdict of the appeals court didn't exculpate the bishop. Instead, it was silent testimony to the truth that justice delayed can indeed be justice denied.

E-mail Elizabeth Evans at Eeevans269@aol.com.