Priest can't escape sordid past

June 4, 2008 5:19:16 PM PDT
A priest's history of sexual misconduct is coming back to haunt him. This is not a Catholic priest, but an Episcopal priest who had sex with members of his own flock and at least one young girl, while he was married.

This story is different than the Catholic priests we've exposed over the years. These aren't just accusations -- this Episcopal priest admits having sex with an underage girl in the 1970's. So, why didn't the bishop ever take action?

A word of caution -- we're being careful in our wording, but some of the descriptions from the victims are graphic.

John Bennison has been the pastor at Saint John's Episcopal Church in Clayton for 25 years, but it's his sexual misconduct during two previous jobs that's now sparking demonstrations from the survivors network of those abused by priests.

Joey Piscatelli, clergy abuse activist: "Right now, we want him removed from ministry. I think the Episcopal church is being irresponsible, by leaving him in ministry, I think they're rolling dice with the safety of kids."

So far, members of Bennison's congregation support him and they've lashed out at the protesters. They tell us the priest's been open about what he describes as a one-time mistake -- "a consensual affair with a young woman many years ago."

But Bennison hasn't told his congregation the whole story, and he refused to address the complaints for this report.

We've traced his sexual misconduct by combing church documents, by speaking with his victims and his first wife.

Maggie Thompson, Bennison's first wife: "Oh, I think it was just horrible, you know, I've spent years of my life now trying to come to terms with it."

Maggie Thompson says shortly after they arrived at St. Mark's in Upland, Bennison announced he wanted to have an open marriage.

Maggie Thompson: "And he also said all along with all the women that he was involved in, it wasn't that he didn't love me, it was just that he loved them, too."

Bennison's first affair -- a 19-year-old girl from the church youth group he led.

Muriel, Bennison victim: "Being young, I was still used to doing what someone in authority tells you to do. You know, you don't think of saying no."

Muriel doesn't want to use her last name or show her face. She's concerned about the repercussions of speaking out.

She went to Bennison for counseling, but she says it quickly became a bizarre sexual relationship, including threesomes with his wife. One time when they were alone, Muriel says the priest tied her face down on the bed and forced himself on her.

Muriel: "I did tell him 'no'. I did tell him I didn't like it, but he did it anyway. And then afterwards, he'd be all, 'I'm sorry, but I couldn't help myself.'"

Dan Noyes: "Some people would call that rape."

Muriel: "Yeah, I realize now it was."

Next, Bennison began courting a 13-year-old girl. The sexual abuse began when she was 14 and continued for four years, often in his church office or the choir loft. He even brought the girl to bed with his wife.

Maggie Thompson: "It was his fantasy to have a threesome. It was not anything the rest of us wanted to do, but we were pretty heavily controlled by him."

All this information appears in documents from a 1993 church investigation. They show that Bennison had sex with other vulnerable women he met at St. Mark's, including a 35-year-old mother of three going through a divorce.

The behavior continued at his next job at All Saints by the Sea in Santa Barbara with a 21-year-old who went to Bennison for marriage counseling. The documents also show he paid for an abortion for an 18-year-old girl with church money.

Dan Noyes: "How do you see what he did, how serious is this."

Margo Maris, Episcopal priest: "Oh, I see it as a high crime. I mean, it's treason."

Margo Maris has been an Episcopal priest for almost 30 years, and she investigated Bennison's misconduct for the church. She is shocked that the bishop of California, San Francisco's William Swing, has allowed Bennison to remain at Saint John's in Clayton after reading all the sordid details.

Margo Maris: "I'm not talking about revenge, I'm talking about justice. And for me, it touches my soul in terms of what I think the priesthood is about and what I think the church is about."

Bishop Swing also refused to speak with us about the case. The victims and their families believe that Bennison's father and brother, both bishops, were able to influence Swing to go easy on the priest.

In fact, his brother was pastor at St. Mark's when the scandal first erupted. In 1979, Chuck Bennison sent a letter to John's first wife, urging her to keep quiet: "a public scandal here... could cost me my job."

Andy, victim's brother: "It was a huge betrayal of the whole family."

Andy is the brother of Bennison's youngest victim. He doesn't want to use his last name to protect his sister's identity.

For the church investigation in 1993, she wrote, "not only did John violate my body, he also took my soul." She's battled alcohol abuse, anorexia and thoughts of suicide.

Now, Andy says she's terribly upset that Bennison remains a priest.

Andy: "All we're really asking is that he be removed from the priesthood and I think that's appropriate considering that he admitted to sexually molesting a 14-year-old girl."

And the woman who investigated Bennison for the Episcopal church agrees.

Margo Maris: "My concern is for the safety of young people or young women in this case. For him to still be there, if I were a member of the parish, I would be concerned."

On Monday, the clergy abuse activists canvassed Bennison's neighborhood, passing out fliers.

Activist: "His target age group for molestation is 13."

There's a middle school just a few doors from Bennison's house in Walnut Creek, and his neighbors are now concerned about their own daughters.

The family of the 14-year-old sexually abused by the priest decided not to press charges against Bennison, out of concern for the girl.

We'll stay on top of this situation, and tell you what -- if anything -- changes.


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