The Episcopal Bishop of Montana is likely to be defrocked as a priest. This is the sentence recommended by a panel of bishops after a church court found him guilty of sexual misconduct involving a married woman who was a parishioner and church employee.

If the sentence, given by the panel on February 14, is upheld, 58-year-old Bishop Charles I. "Ci" Jones will no longer be allowed to administer the church's sacraments—the strictest possible punishment under church law.

His attorney, Edward Curry, said Jones was considering appealing against the sentence. Jones has 30 days to file an appeal with a church court. Until that date, the sentence is "stayed" pending a possible appeal.

The 7-2 decision to defrock Jones as a priest follows a January hearing at which the woman asked for the strictest possible discipline to be applied. Jones had a sexual relationship with her from 1981 to 1983, when Jones was rector of an Episcopal church in Russellville, Kentucky. He became bishop of Montana in 1986. Jones was found guilty of the charges in December.

Jones has declined comment to reporters, though he gave a statement in the Evangel, the Montana diocese newsletter, in which he said the decision was "shocking to me, given that my sexual misconduct of which I was found guilty took place almost two decades ago."

The Montana Diocesan Council had unanimously supported Jones's removal, but he said he had been the target of unfair criticism within the diocese. "The lie that is at the root of our suffering as a diocese is perpetuated by a small group of 25 to 30 people among us. The lie is this: 'Ci Jones is a bad person and is the root of all of our troubles.'"

The decision to strip Jones of his clerical status was made by a panel of nine fellow bishops after the submissions regarding sentencing were heard in January in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The bishops said in their decision that the misconduct was "a serious and egregious offence." They condemned the "serious nature of the sexual exploitation and abuse of power and trust" shown by Jones.

In addition, the church court found that Jones had "not demonstrated an understanding of or a genuine repentance for the offences committed" and had demonstrated what it called a "continuing pattern of abusive and exploitative behavior and a risk of future exploitation."

Two members of the tribunal, retired bishop Robert Johnson of the diocese of North Carolina and New Hampshire Bishop Douglas Theuner, dissented. Bishop Johnson called for a public admonition—a formal reprimand—that would not strip Jones of his title. Bishop Theuner called for a tougher punishment, saying Jones should be suspended on conditions, but noted that no other charges of sexual misconduct had been leveled against Jones, and that the bishop had been permitted to serve in Montana even after publicly admitting to the misconduct.

But the woman pressing the charges, who is now 46-years-old, told the sentencing hearing that she wanted the toughest possible sentence imposed against Jones as she had been exploited. Her argument apparently convinced the court. "The passage of time between [Jones's] relationship with the [woman] has not mitigated the serious circumstances of the offences committed," the court said.

The church's current Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, has not commented on the case.

Related Elsewhere:

For more on the defrocking verdict see the Associated Press's "Church Court Removes Bishop."

Previous coverage of the trial includes Christianity Today's"Bishop to Be Punished 19 Years After Affair", plus stories from the Episcopal News Service and The Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky.

You can also read about Jones's replacement at the Diocese of Montana homepage.