Church Trial Begins for Bishop Accused of Hiding Abuse

An Episcopal bishop accused of concealing his brother's sexual abuse of a 14-year-old decades ago once told the girl's mother he did not think it was his place to inform her family, her mother testified Monday at a church trial.

The testimony came as the trial opened for Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. of the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania. His brother became a priest after the abuse is alleged to have begun.

A panel of bishops, priests and church members will decide whether Bennison, the leader of the fifth-largest Episcopal diocese, may resume his duties. Bennison, 64, was ordered to cease all "ministerial and canonical acts" in November.

The U.S. Episcopal Church is part of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, a global fellowship of churches that trace their roots to the Church of England.

The 76-year-old mother of the girl, now 50, testified that she found out about the abuse when her daughter was in college and asked Bennison about it. She said he told her he had known about it, but thought it was the girl's place to tell her family.

"He said, 'I know what this is about,"' testified the mother, who is not being identified by The Associated Press to protect the identity of the victim. "He made the decision that it would cause the least harm not to say anything."

The AP typically does not identify victims of sexual abuse.

At the time of the reported 1973 abuse, Bennison was rector of St. Mark's Church in Upland, California, in the Diocese of Los Angeles, and his brother was a married lay minister there.

The church indictment, called a presentment, charges that Bennison reacted "passively and self-protectively" and "failed to take obvious, essential steps to investigate his brother's actions, protect the girl from further abuse, and find out whether other children were in danger."

The church indictment also charges that Bennison continued to "fail in his duties" by knowing about the abuse but not stopping his brother's 1974 ordination. John Bennison, who never faced criminal charges, left the priesthood two years ago.

Charles Bennison's attorney, James Pabarue, testified his client did nothing wrong. At the time, the church did not have any guidelines in place for reporting sexual abuse, Pabarue said.

"Charles Bennison, then a 31-year-old parish rector, handled the situation he faced in a manner he believed to be correct and appropriate at that time," Pabarue testified. He said Bennison confronted his brother, who denied the accusations.

Church lawyer Larry White said in his opening statement that the sexual relationship started when the girl was 14 and continued for five years. Charles Bennison did not put a stop to it and did not alert the church, White said.

A special Court for the Trial of a Bishop was chosen to hear the evidence and announce within 30 days its verdict on whether the bishop may resume his duties.