Charges delay vote on bishop

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MINNEAPOLIS - The Episcopal Church was thrown into confusion yesterday when a pair of last-minute allegations surfaced against the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, prompting leaders to postpone a vote expected to make Robinson the first openly gay bishop in America.

Responding to allegations that Robinson had inappropriate physical contact with another man and had connections to an organization whose Web page linked indirectly to a pornographic site, Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold formed a committee to investigate.

Griswold said Robinson - the bishop-elect of New Hampshire - and other leaders of his diocese "asked that a thorough investigation be undertaken before we proceed with seeking the consent of the bishops."

The physical contact allegation, which surfaced Sunday night, is a vague one in which a middle-aged Vermont man claimed Robinson had put his hands on him "inappropriately" during a regional church meeting two years ago.

The second complaint came from a conservative church group, the American Anglican Council. The group told bishops that a Web site for Outright, a support group for gay and lesbian youth with which Robinson has been involved, was linked to another site that in turn was linked to a bisexual porn site.

The last-minute allegations turned what gay rights advocates had hoped would be a day of celebration into a disorienting ordeal marked by turmoil and confusion.

However, it was unclear last night whether either allegation would halt the momentum for Robinson's confirmation - which had seemed all but assured Sunday.

Robinson's supporters confirmed yesterday that a Web site for the Portland, Maine, branch of Outright was two mouse clicks away from a pornographic site. But Outright said Robinson was never affiliated with the Portland group. In an online biography, Robinson describes himself as a founding member of Outright's Concord, N.H., branch.

Outright maintains an umbrella Web page of links to nine branch sites in Vermont, Maine and New Hampshire.

"Bishop-elect Rev. Gene Robinson has not been involved, at any time, with our Outright organization in Portland or our Web site and its content," Cathy Kidman, Outright's interim executive director, wrote in a statement released last night. "This is clearly an attempt to discredit his important nomination."

The complaint of unwelcome contact came to the attention of bishops in an e-mail from a man named David Lewis, identified as a church member from Vermont. Calls to Lewis' home in Manchester, a town of about 3,000 in the state's southwest corner, were not returned.

Little was known about the man yesterday. A woman who answered the phone at The Manchester Journal, the home town newspaper for which Lewis has done some free-lance writing, described Lewis as a "gentle man" but refused to give her full name.

Seth Bongartz, a lawyer in Manchester, told the Associated Press he knew Lewis "fairly well" and said he is married with two children and apparently training to become an Episcopal priest.

State Rep. Judy Livingston said she also knew Lewis and his wife. She described him as "very intelligent," adding: "He is not the person who would make wild accusations."

According to an electronic search of public records by The Sun, Lewis is 50 years old and also maintained an address in Los Angeles from at least 1984 until 2001.

Supporters and opponents of Robinson's confirmation greeted the allegation with a degree of skepticism but said they would respect the church's investigative process.

"One can wonder why he [Lewis] waited so late and whether there is any substance to this," said the Rev. David C. Anderson, president of the American Anglican Council, which has opposed Robinson's candidacy. "Gene deserves the right to defend himself, and this could be a scurrilous and false accusation."

The Rev. Michael Hopkins, president of Integrity, a national group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Episcopalians, said he stood by his long-time friend.

"I know Gene," said Hopkins, who is also rector of St. George's Episcopal Church in Glendale, Prince George's County. "I personally can't imagine that this is true. I have to believe that an investigation will exonerate him."

Griswold, the presiding bishop, did not give a timetable for the investigation,

"Gene, being an openly gay person, has a history of people taking potshots at him," said the Rev. Douglas E. Theuner, the bishop of New Hampshire. "I certainly hope it [Robinson's confirmation] will be over before the convention is over."

Until Sunday evening, it had looked as though Robinson would sail through his confirmation vote. Earlier that day, the church's House of Deputies had approved his June election in New Hampshire by an easy margin. The House of Bishops had been expected to follow suit yesterday.

Plans for the vote began to come into question Sunday night when bishops received an e-mail from Lewis alleging what he called inappropriate touching.

"PLEASE DO NOT consent to the consecration of Gene Robinson as a bishop," Lewis wrote in an e-mail addressed to the Rev. Thomas C. Ely, the bishop of Vermont, and to the Episcopal Diocese of Vermont.

In the e-mail, dispatched about 9 p.m. Sunday, Lewis said that at a church meeting two years ago, Robinson "put his hands on me inappropriately every time I engaged him in conversation."

"NO GAY MAN HAS EVER BEHAVED TOWARDS ME THIS WAY," Lewis continued. "My personal experience of him is that Robinson does not maintain appropriate boundaries with men. I believe this is an alarming weakness of character that alone makes Gene unsuitable for the office of bishop."

The Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, bishop of the Diocese of Maryland and a Robinson supporter, said he had not seen the e-mail but was certain the church would fully investigate the matter.

"Our procedure in the Episcopal Church is to take allegations of any kind very seriously," said Ihloff.

The conservative Anglican Council has warned of a split within the American Episcopal church if Robinson is seated. Like-minded bishops in the Anglican Communion, the 75 million-member global association that includes the Episcopal Church, said they, too, will consider breaking with the denomination if Robinson wins.

Robinson has rejected calls from conservatives that he withdraw from consideration to prevent a schism in the church, as a gay clergyman did recently in England.

Sun staff Research Director Sandy Levy and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
63°