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Wednesday, August 11, 2010


I'll start with a Confession of my own - I've been busy packing. Too busy to write because I've been too busy with too many tasks to be creative.

That doesn't mean I haven't been thinking. I'm taking a bit of a break tonight to puts some of my thoughts into this post.

I've been thinking a great deal about the Bennison case in The Diocese of Pennsylvania.

You are probably familiar with the story by now. You can catch up by reading the whole thing at Episcopal Cafe, which, as usual, has the best round up of news on the case.

You can read the entire ruling here.

The key passage is this:
For that reason, while we agree with the Trial Court that Appellant was guilty of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy, those actions do not constitute sexual abuse and, therefore, a Presentment for that offense cannot be made because it is bared by the applicable statute of limitations. The Trial Court was clearly erroneous in failing to apply the statute of limitations and, therefore, its judgment against Appellant on the First Offense is hereby reversed.
The "technicality" is "statue of limitations".

Now, look, I think the whole idea of statue of limitations is a good one. Memories fade. Documents get lost.

Besides, we don't interpret scripture through today's lens. We take it in the context in which it was written and find application for our lives today. Why shouldn't we do that in the stories of people's lives?

Life in the 70s was very different than it is today. In 1975, I could not get a credit card without the signature of my father, husband or brother on the application.

In 1981, I could not fill out the application to legally change my name in the State of Maine without my ex-husband's permission - even though we had been legally divorced for five years.

In 1983, Cheryl Araujo was gang-raped by several drunk bar patrons in Big Dan's Bar in New Bedford, MA, while drunken onlookers cheer them on. The rapists were initially allowed to plead guilty to "reckless endangerment" - not rape - because Ms. Arujo was considered by some to be "promiscuous" and dressed "provocatively".

Times have changed. So have our attitudes about women. And, children. Accordingly, our laws have changed. Thanks be to God.

One of the questions in the case, however, was the issue of confession. Bishop Bennison did not abuse the 14 year old girl in the case. His brother did. He did not report it to anyone because, he said, he was protected by the seal of confession.

First of all, the information was known by several people besides Bennison, so it was neither "under the seal" of confession, nor protected by "confidentiality".

This is what is meant, I presume, by the Court's statement ". . .that Appellant was guilty of conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy. . ."

Even so, the new ruling allows Bishop Bennison to return to his office, which he intends to do on August 16.

This has led the Rev'd Timothy B. Safford, Rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia, to write an open letter to Bishop Bennison, asking him not to return to his office.

He writes, in part:
"To be Bishop is to unify the Church, but your return would further divide our diocese. To be Bishop is to build up the Church, but your return would tear down the fragile foundations of trust and hope that have been built these past two years. My strong belief is that your return will do more harm than good, create more anger and less reconciliation, and hinder, not advance, the Church’s mission in our diocese. These realities may be unfair and unjust, but I believe them to be true."
Be sure to read the whole of Tim's letter. It's excellent. I don't have a dog in this hunt, and no one will likely pay no nevermind to my opinion, but I must admit that I agree with Tim.

As I thought about the case amidst sorting and wrapping and packing, I thought about the whole issue of confession. It's part of what Bennison originally hid behind in not turning in the abuser - who was, conveniently enough, his brother.

It's part of what is, for me "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy." It is despicable and cowardly behavior. There are no other words for it.

The thing of it is that today, clergy are not exempt from reporting suspected sexual abuse. However, that varies from state to state - even neighboring states. Some states exempt anything that was told "in confession". Other states, exempt anything told in confession or "in confidence".

Still others, like Georgia State Code, report this:
Every communication made by any person professing religious faith, seeking spiritual comfort, or seeking counseling to any Protestant minister of theGospel, any priest of the Roman Catholic faith, any priest of the Greek Orthodox Catholic faith, any Jewish rabbi, or to any Christian or Jewish minister, by whatever name called, shall be deemed privileged. No such minister, priest, or rabbi shall disclose any communications made to him by any such person professing religious faith, seeking spiritual guidance, or seeking counseling, nor shall such minister, priest, or rabbi be competent or compellable to testify with reference to any such communication in any court.
Despite state law, clergy - and bishops - are still subject to judgment under Title IV of Canon Law, which was revised in 1994. As one Canon Lawyer recently wrote on HOB/D,
"In addition to vastly expanding the canonical statute of limitations for child physical and sexual abuse and for similar Offenses against adults (note: 10-15 years, depending on the situation), (Title IV revisions) did another unprecedented thing. It created a "window" for the bringing forward of old, previously barred complaints of physical violence, sexual abuse or sexual exploitation. That meant that clergy who had committed such Offenses AT ANY TIME IN THE PAST and for whom the statute of limitations had run out, for some decades before, were once again subject to accountability for their acts (under canon law).

The "window" for charges being brought against priests and deacons was open from January 1, 1996 to July 1, 1998 (if my memory is correct). Since Title IV wasn't revised fully for bishops until General Convention 1997, the window for bishops was open, I think, from January 1, 1998 to July 1, 1998.
I was once in a situation where a man came in for "confession". His confession was his intent to do murder. Had a knife. Had a plan. Was as serious as a heart attack.

He wanted absolution - not for his murderous thoughts so he wouldn't commit murder. He wanted absolution BEFORE he committed the crime so he COULD do commit murder. You know. With a clear conscious.

I told him I couldn't do that. Wouldn't do that. He was shocked! Shocked, I tell you! How could I possibly deny absolution to someone who was making a true confession? Damn women priests! Who did we think we were anyway? Not real priests! Couldn't be.

He ran from my office muttering curses at me. I never learned his name. I don't know where he lived. All I know is that he wanted to kill "Charles" for having an affair with his girlfriend.

I can assure you, I didn't sleep for weeks after that. I scoured the papers every day for a year, looking in the police blotter for anyone who had been attacked or murdered whose name was Charles.

In the midst of it all, I consulted my bishop about what I did - what I ought to have done. My bishop assured me that I had done the right thing - had done all I could have done, given the circumstances.

I did go to the police to tell them my story. The jaded old police chief looked kindly on the then snot-nosed newbie priest and said, "Let me ask you something, Mother. May I call you, Mother?"

"Sure," I said. "Makes me feel a little silly. I mean, I don't have to point out that you're probably old enough to be my father."

He smiled and said, "Hey, I'm a Catholic kid. I wasn't cut out for the priesthood - I liked the ladies too much, which is why my wife divorced me and we never had any kids - but I always wanted to be called 'Father' so go right ahead."

"Well now," I said, "That's quite a confession right there!"

We both shared a laugh before he cleared his throat and said, "Well, Mother, did you have your stole on when you talked with this guy?"

"No," I said, curiously. "He rushed right into confessing before I had a chance to say or do anything."

"So, you did not have your prayer book open to the Rite of Confession?"

"No," I said, growing more curious.

"Then, Mother, if you're worried about 'breaking the seal of confession', you don't have to any more. In this state, you were told something in confidence, but the information you were given was compelling enough for you to break that confidentiality in the name of potentially saving a life."

I felt relieved at the time, but still curious to know whether or not he was correct. I've checked with a few lawyers over the years and, in the way lawyers have of talking round in circles, I never got a straight answer.

The collective "feeling" I got from their responses, however, is that, had I been asked in a court of law to reveal the contents of the man's 'confession' and did so, I would not have been found guilty of "conduct unbecoming a clergy person' by a jury of my peers - even if none of them were ordained.

Obviously, I take the seal of confession as serious as a heart attack. So seriously that now, since that incident, I don't hear confession until I have my stole on and my prayer book open to the Reconciliation of a Penitent.

I also tell the person - before we begin - that if what they have to tell me involves bodily harm or murder to another - planned or actual - or physical, emotional or sexual abuse of a child, I am duty bound to report it and will withhold absolution until a full confession is made to the legal authorities.

I am thankful when I get surprised or shocked looks and someone says, "Jeeze, it's bad, but it's not THAT bad!"

We usually share a laugh at that point, but inside, I always think of that man in my office who wanted absolution because he wanted to feel free to kill someone.

I am glad he occasionally haunts me. The memory of that incident keeps me focused on the holiness of confession and the power of absolution.

He has haunted me as I consider the Bennison case.

Hiding behind the seal of the confessional? I can barely stand it. Someone should revise the canons to make that cause for deposition.

Bishop Bennison reported said after the ruling, “I think I have shared in Christ’s crucifixion.”

I have to tell you, when I heard that, my immediate reaction was to become ill. Very ill. Never mind what the woman went through. Never mind what the church, the Body of Christ has gone through. Never mind that the message has gone forth that, with his return to office, the church is not really safe for the sheep of his flock.

There's always a legal loophole - even in canon law - for a wolf in shepherd's clothing to slip through.

The reality is that the moral authority of Bishop Bennison's episcopacy has been fatally compromised. I don't know how the people of the Diocese of PA, the members of the House of Bishops, and the whole rest of God's one, holy, catholic and apostolic church can feel whole or holy as long as this man is an active diocesan bishop.

Perhaps it is time for Bishop Bennison to confess this "conduct unbecoming a clergy person", give thanks for the generosity and mercy of the Court of Appeals for a Bishop, be grateful for the time God has given him to function in a trusted role of leadership in the church, and graciously, prayerfully step aside.

Confession. I understand it's good for the soul.

However, there will be no absolution here.

That's between him and Jesus.


Lisa Fox said...

Thank you for this, Elizabeth.

I do know Bishop Bennison. He is the bishop who put his hands upon my head and confirmed me as an Episcopalian.

What has happened breaks my heart.

I cannot square the experience of the Bishop Bennison I knew then with the man who now claims he is "crucified with Christ." Sheesh!

I thank God, Elizabeth, that I don't have the heavy responsibility that you priests have. God be with you, my friend.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

It's a great privilege and an enormous burden, Lisa. Definitely not for sissies.

MarkBrunson said...

I have very mixed feelings about the "seal of confessional" in cases involving criminal activity.

I can't find a lot of places in which Scripture points to wrong-doing being our little secret, but there is at least one strong statement that we need to be very careful to submit ourselves to the laws of the State.

I understand the practical need for the seal - you don't want your confessor being a gossip, or an officious little informer - but, it seems to me, the developed Tradition of the seal of confession has been allowed to become a cop-out (no pun intended). What good is absolution if there is no responsibility for transformation imposed on the absolved?

It's a very difficult issue, and I think, maybe, the sacrosanct "seal" is far too easy an answer to it.

Joan Lucia-Treese said...

Well said, Elizabeth! Thank you.

JCF said...

I'm right there w/ the mixed feelings.

I make a Confession every Lent (for about 25 years), and w/ all the priests I've been to, I've never heard a Preamble like yours, Elizabeth. For good or ill, I find it off-putting and unnerving. Needless to say, I've never abused a child or committed an act of violence---nevertheless, hearing that "Caveat" when feeling vulnerable (as I do pre-Confession), I might seek out another confessor (Yes, as you can tell, I believe in "The Seal").


I think the Bennison case is disturbing. The canons MUST be changed (the statute of limitations) so it never happens again...

...yet Fr Safford's letter bothers me too.

The notion that Bennison can't resume his episcopal ministries, because he "would further divide our diocese": weren't EXACTLY those words used, as to why +Gene Robinson should not be elected/confirmed/consecrated bishop?

I think we need to be very careful, before we establish that being divisive is grounds to prevent leadership in the church. How many of the Early Church fathers---to say nothing of Biblical prophets---would have failed THAT standard? O_o

Kenneth Wolman said...

I was at the Philadelphia Cathedral last Sunday evening when a meeting was held touching on returning Bishop Bennison to his position. Most of the speakers were clergy of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, and most were in a barely-controlled fury. It's "interesting" to witness a group of men and women in their clerical collars inveighing against what they saw as the exercise of legalism against the hard-to-define rules of decency and Church decorum. As a layman, I was so upset I left the room before Compline and found myself nearly weeping in the arms of the Cathedral Dean, Judith Sullivan. She advised me to pray for whole whole assembly, singly and together--and I have done so. Yet the remembered waves of fury continue to resound. And yet--again--charging Bishop Bennison with complicity in a crime against a child also seems justified. One lay parishioner suggested that the assembled clergy have forgotten Jesus' admonition to the woman taken in adultery. And he was right too. But what if that nameless woman had done it again? So what then is the balance beam on which we walk carefully? Forgiveness, yes. Forgiveness of a man of flawed character who made a terrible mistake. But forgiveness is not forgetting. It does not remove the need to remember what occurred. Can the Bishop, with a cloud still hanging over him, renew his obligations to the Pennsylvania Diocese in an atmosphere where so few people trust his judgment? After a few days from the terrible and angry Cathedral meeting, I doubt it. How can a man so compromised by the stain of complicity in the crime of silence renew his command of authority over his priests and the laity? How can he exercise his office? I doubt he can.

Bishop Bennison "won," but won what? Reinstatement to an office that some clergy feel he cannot discharge? Reinstatement to an office in which the general feeling is that he should be approached to resign and retire for the good of his Church? In retrospect, I think those in favor of having him resign have right on their side. Better to convene a new search for a Bishop who comes to us without "a past" or that slippery British verdict "Not proven."

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Oh, Kenneth, I'm so sorry. It sounds worse than I had imagined, I thought it would be pretty dismal.

Yes, we forgive. And, we owe it to those who have been injured to make absolutely certain there is justice and that circumstances will change so that the situation will never happen again.

Forgiveness is important. So is repentance. And, conversion. It may just be my perspective, but I see little of either in Bennison.

IT said...

I also note that Pope Benedict has refused the resignation of Irish bishops over the scandal of abuse there. As they say, what the hell is he thinking?

As for Bp Bennison, it is unfortunate that he sees himself as a victim and can't see this outside of the prism of himself. The honorable thing may not be REQUIRED legalistically, but it is always sad when people can't see it. "I got mine" is hardly edifying for the individual or his institution.

Muthah+ said...

There are times in your ministry--lay, ordained or episcopal, that you have to recognize that your leadership has ended. Sometimes it is because of what you have or haven't done, sometimes it is because the situation has changed.

IF --and that is a big IF,Chas. Bennison could admit his failure to lead in a way necessary in his diocese, some GREAT healing could take place, both for himself but also for those who are so angry. BUT, I doubt if that is going to happen. There doesn't sound as if there is enough good will on either side of this divide to make reconciliation possible.

I do not know the bishop. I have heard very positive things and very negative things about him. His is most likely like all of us--flawed but a man of God. But sometimes our ministries come to an end for reasons beyond our control and we need to own that for the good of the Church.

rick allen said...

I remember when my son, then 12, was reading Philip Pulman's "The Amber Spyglass," and he was puzzled by a term used there, "pre-emptive absolution."

Apparently Pulman's sinister "Church" would routinely do what your pentitent requested, grant absolution to its own killers before they went out on hit jobs.

After explaining the term's meaning I tried to gently suggest that someone didn't quite have the concept of confession down, as that requirement of contrition was rather nullified by the prsent intent to do what one was "confessing."

It does, however, make me wonder: Has anyone ever hesitated confessing to someone who's blog is named "Telling Secrets:?

Brother David said...

Apart from the charges of which he escaped by a mere legal technicality and not an exoneration, perhaps some folks here, JCF, are not aware, or have forgotten, that the folks of the Diocese of Pennsylvania had issues and were trying to be rid of this bishop prior to these charges. They had weighed his episcopal leadership in the balance and found him wanting.

These charges were perhaps too convenient, and there is a case to be made that they were manipulated to achieve what was not being accomplished by other means. But I think the folks of Dio Penn thought that they were done with him. His immanent return is a solid slap in the face.

His bishopric in Pennsylvania is irreconcilably broken. If he is at all perceptive and intelligent he needs to see that, accept that and act fully informed and truly for the good of the church. But his comments have always made him appear one track, egotistical. I think that come Hell and high water he will not go quietly.

My prayers are with the folks of Dio Penn. They are currently caught between a rock and a really hard place.

MJ Campbell said...

Bennison needs to go. His crucifixion comment is a disgrace.
While I do not want him subject to physical violence (it's illegal) I do want him gone by any other means
necessary. Creativity, anyone?

Christian Paolino said...

In replies to JCF's thoughts:

I can understand that would be off-putting, but it's also truthful. Would it be better not to say that and then blindside the person by betraying their trust later?

In the eyes of our state the obligation under the law takes priority over holy orders, even though if I am understanding Elizabeth correctly clergy are now directed by canon law to come forward with such information regardless how they learn about it.

Also I felt that the priest in Pennsylvania -- while being harsh -- is also speaking truth to power. It's not that he wishes these feelings among the clergy and laity into being, he believes they are already there (and based on Kenneth's description, he may have been understating them). I have to agree that Bennison should be thinking of the greater good here and allowing someone else to take over so the diocese can try to get past this.

Ann said...

Bishop Bennison reported said after the ruling, “I think I have shared in Christ’s crucifixion.”

If picking up the hammer and nails can be called sharing - perhaps he is right. The only way to healing in this is for Bennison to admit to his failure to report and do something for the abused person that shows making amends. His continued arrogance will only end in disaster.