Episcopalians delay vote on church's first openly gay bishop after twin allegations

Tuesday, August 5th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) _ A clergyman seeking to become the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church was ``surprised and dismayed'' by 11th-hour allegations questioning his reputation but remained calm as an investigation got under way, a spokesman said Tuesday.

Just as bishops convened Monday to consider approving the Rev. V. Gene Robinson, allegations emerged that he inappropriately touched a man and that he is connected to a group whose Web site can indirectly link users to pornography.

Presiding Bishop Griswold said Robinson, with current New Hampshire Bishop Douglas Theuner and representatives of his diocese, decided together ``that a thorough investigation be undertaken before we proceed.''

Robinson did not comment. His spokesman, Mike Barwell, said Robinson learned of the claims around 8 a.m. Monday and that ``nobody is falling apart.''

``He's been amazingly calm,'' Barwell said in an interview Tuesday morning. ``We are not afraid.''

The inquiry threw the national church meeting into turmoil, after several days of intense debate over whether Robinson's election would strengthen or shatter the church.

``There is no precedent for this,'' said Jim Solheim, a church spokesman. ``The church's canon lawyers are still sorting out the implications.''

Solheim said such accusations ``trigger an almost automatic'' inquiry, but he did not know how long the investigation would take or if a vote on Robinson would come before the church's national meeting ends Friday.

Robinson, who is attending the convention with his daughter and partner of 13 years, Mark Andrew, left the meeting shortly before Griswold announced the investigation and planned to spend Tuesday morning away from the legislative sessions, resting, Barwell said.

Barwell would not comment on the allegations, but noted that Robinson had already undergone extensive background checks in New Hampshire and was elected by his diocese in June after a very public, 16-month process. The church requires that a majority of convention delegates ratify Robinson's election.

The New Hampshire diocese issued a statement Monday expressing ``continued confidence'' in the clergyman.

The Episcopal gay advocacy group Integrity said it felt ``deep frustration and disappointment over the 11th-hour allegation.''

``It's character assassination,'' said Robyn Cotton, a Concord, N.H., Episcopalian who supports Robinson.

A claim that Robinson inappropriately touched a man was e-mailed Sunday to Bishop Thomas Ely of Vermont, who was asked in the message not to consent to Robinson's election. Other bishops received the e-mail as well and ``some of the bishops have talked to the accuser'' about his claims, Solheim said.

In the message, a man who identified himself as David Lewis from Manchester, Vt., said Robinson ``does not maintain appropriate boundaries with men.''

Lewis wrote in the e-mail that he met Robinson at a church event ``a couple of years ago'' and ``he put his hands on me inappropriately every time I engaged him in conversation.'' Lewis described himself as a ``straight man reporting homosexual harassment.''

Seth Bongartz, a lawyer in Manchester, said 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, and described him as ``very intelligent,'' adding: ``He is not the person who would make wild accusations.''

Theuner said in a statement that the church's investigation would also include scrutiny of separate concerns raised about Robinson's ``relationship to a Web site of outright.org,'' a secular outreach program for gay and bisexual youth that Robinson helped found.

Bishops learned of the porn link claim from David Virtue, a conservative Anglican activist and writer who has been among the harshest critics of Robinson and of Episcopal gay activists. Virtue said a bishop whom he would not identify alerted him to the link.

Mo Baxley, a member of Concord, N.H., Outright's board of directors, said Robinson hasn't been involved with the group for several years and had no role in developing its Web page.

The link is on an unaffiliated site that had resources for gay youth, Baxley said. That page provided resources for bisexuals that, a few links away, provided access to porn.

Outright issued a statement Monday saying the organization was not aware of the link and objected to it.

The American Anglican Council, which represents conservative bishops and parishes that had campaigned vigorously against Robinson, said it still hoped he was rejected, but not because of the allegations.

``Gene deserves the right to defend himself,'' said Canon David Anderson, the council president.

Bishop Gordon Scruton of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts was named to lead the investigation. If it is not finished by the end of the convention, church lawyers were researching whether bishops could vote on Robinson's confirmation by mail or call a special session later to conduct the balloting, Solheim said.

The denomination has been deeply divided for decades over homosexuality and the pending vote on Robinson, a 56-year-old divorced father of two, only fueled the tensions.

The American Anglican Council plans a meeting in October to decide whether to break away from the church or take other action if Robinson is seated.

Like-minded bishops in the Anglican Communion, the 77-million-member global association that includes the Episcopal Church, said they, too, will consider severing ties with the denomination if Robinson wins.