By Rachel Zoll
The Associated Press
MINNEAPOLIS - Plans by Episcopal leaders to vote on confirming the church's first openly gay elected bishop were thrown into turmoil Monday when allegations emerged that he inappropriately touched a man and was affiliated with a youth Web site that had a link to pornography.
Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, head of the Episcopal Church, released a statement announcing the delay as debate was about to start on whether to confirm the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as New Hampshire's bishop.
"Questions have been raised and brought to my attention regarding the bishop-elect of the Diocese of New Hampshire," Griswold said.
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."
Mike Barwell, a spokesman for Robinson, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But Robinson's diocese issued a statement expressing "continued confidence" in him.
Jim Solheim, a national church spokesman, said the investigation was launched quickly.
"Churches are very sensitive to these issues. When charges are made against a priest of the church, it does trigger an almost automatic process," he said.
The allegations of inappropriate touching were e-mailed Sunday to Bishop Thomas Ely of Vermont, who was asked in the message not to consent to Robinson's election, Episcopal News Service reported. In the e-mail, a man who identified himself as David Lewis from Manchester, Vt., said Robinson "does not maintain appropriate boundaries with men."
Solheim said "some of the bishops have talked to the accuser" about the allegations.
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."
Seth Bongartz, a lawyer in Manchester, said he knows 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 knows 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.
Outright issued a statement Monday saying the organization was not aware of the link and objected to it.
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.
Solheim said he did not know how long the investigation would take or if a vote on Robinson would take place before the church's national meeting ends on Friday. Bishop Gordon Scruton of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts was named to lead the investigation.
Church lawyers were researching whether the bishops could vote after the convention by mail, or call a special session later to conduct the balloting, Solheim said. "There is no precedent for this," he said.
Robyn Cotton, an Episcopalian in Concord, N.H., and a supporter of Robinson, called the allegations "preposterous."
"This is horrible. It's character assassination," Cotton said.
Robinson, a 56-year-old divorced father of two, has been attending the convention with his daughter and partner of 13 years, Mark Andrew.
Robinson was elected by his diocese in June, but the church requires that a majority of convention delegates ratify his election.
On Sunday, the House of Deputies, a legislative body comprised of clergy and lay people from dioceses nationwide, approved Robinson by a 2-to-1 margin; a committee endorsed him by secret ballot Friday.
The final vote he needed was in the House of Bishops, which represents bishops from around the country.
Robinson's chances were unclear. It is rare for the General Convention to reject a diocese's choice of bishops, but the denomination has been deeply divided for decades over homosexuality.
The American Anglican Council, which represents conservative bishops and parishes, plans a meeting in October to decide whether to break away from the church or take some 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.
Robinson has rejected calls from conservatives that he withdraw from consideration to prevent a breakup of the church, as a gay clergyman did recently in England.
Canon David Anderson, president of the American Anglican Council, said he still hoped Robinson would be rejected, but not because of the allegations.
On the Net:
Episcopal Church: http://www.episcopalchurch.org
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