Just three weeks after a church court ruled that he should be removed from office, Episcopal Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr. faces the start of an unusual civil trial today that could cost the financially struggling Diocese of Pennsylvania millions of dollars.

Bennison, 63, is being sued for damages in Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas by the Rev. David Moyer, who alleges that Bennison used fraud and deception to defrock him as a priest of the diocese six years ago.

Moyer's attorney, John Lewis, said that

Moyer v. Bennison

appears to be the first trial in American jurisprudence involving "the ecclesiastical discipline of a priest in a hierarchical church."

Bennison's lawyer, Mary Kohart, of the Center City law firm Drinker, Biddle & Reath L.L.P., fought hard to block the trial, arguing repeatedly in county court that the First Amendment bars civil courts from deciding the personnel matters of religious institutions.

But after hearing four pretrial motions to dismiss, Common Pleas Court Judge Thomas Branca last year sided with Moyer, who had argued that he had no other remedy because Bennison had improperly denied him a church trial.

The longtime rector of Good Shepherd parish in Rosemont, Moyer, 57, is a traditionalist cleric fiercely opposed to same-sex marriage and the ordination of gays and women, which the Episcopal Church allows.

His feud with the far more liberal Bennison began about 11 years ago, when Bennison announced soon after taking charge of the diocese that he would not appoint a special bishop to minister to the conservative parishes in the five-county diocese of 55,000.

Bennison's stance reversed the pledge he had made to the diocese as it considered appointing him bishop. His predecessor, Bishop Allen Bartlett, had allowed such an arrangement.

Moyer and several other conservative rectors were incensed and soon barred Bennison - a feminism and gay-rights supporter - from preaching or administering sacraments in their parishes, on grounds that his views on homosexuality were unbiblical and akin to heresy.

Several of those rectors and their congregants eventually left the diocese and the Episcopal Church, but Moyer continued to bar Bennison from making pastoral visits to Good Shepherd.

In April 2002, Bennison responded by "inhibiting" Moyer as a priest, meaning he could not preach or administer sacraments, and told him he would "depose" him - remove him permanently from priesthood - unless allowed to visit Good Shepherd for confirmations and other official duties.

Moyer refused, saying he welcomed Bennison's promise of the church trial that would follow his deposition. That same year, he accepted an invitation to be made a bishop in the Anglican Church in America, a traditionalist splinter church, but changed his mind after Episcopal church leaders urged against it.

In September 2002, Bennison deposed Moyer, but stunned him, according to Moyer's suit, by refusing to grant him an appeal trial on grounds that he had "broken communion" with the Episcopal Church by briefly accepting the offer of a bishop's hat elsewhere. He now serves as a visiting bishop in two conservative Anglican churches.

Moyer's deposition shocked many in the 80 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion. The conservative Bishop of Pittsburgh, Robert Duncan, immediately named him a priest of his diocese. The Rev. Frank Griswold, presiding bishop of the 2 million-member denomination, urged him to reinstate Moyer, and the Archbishop of Canterbury publicly declared Moyer to be a priest in good standing in the Church of England. The controversy even made its way into the pages of the Times of London.

Bennison refused to reverse his deposition or to grant Moyer a church trial, however, and so Moyer petitioned the county court for a civil trial. Although his parish of about 450 has continued to support him and keep him on as its rector, he is seeking an unspecified sum in damages from the diocese for loss of employment and mental suffering.

Meanwhile, Bennison is himself threatened with removal from all clerical functions within the Episcopal Church, on grounds that as a young rector in California in the 1970s he failed to intervene in his older brother John's sexual abuse of a teenage girl in his parish, where John Bennison was youth minister. John Bennison was later ordained a priest and served in several California parishes before he was forced to resign last year.

Last October, a special church investigation concluded Charles Bennison had failed to protect the girl, who was 14 at the start of the four-year affair, and had improperly concealed his brother's abuse from civil and church authorities. It suspended Bennison from his duties as diocesan bishop and ordered a trial, which convened here in June.

That court's nine judges, who included five bishops, unanimously found Bennison guilty on charges of "conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy," and early this month sentenced him unanimously to be removed permanently from all church office, meaning he would cease to be an Episcopal bishop or a priest. Bennison is appealing his conviction and his sentence to a special church court.

The Diocese of Pennsylvania, which comprises Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester Counties, has been struggling financially in recent years in part because Bennison has diverted millions of dollars in endowment funds towards the acquisition and development of a diocesan retreat center and children's summer camp in Maryland. The diocesan standing committee has objected so vigorously to his use of the funds that it has not only called unanimously for Bennison's resignation, but last year sought a church trial to remove him from office. A special investigation by the presiding bishop's office concluded there was no basis for such a trial.

Contact staff writer David O'Reilly at 215-854-5723 or doreilly@phillynews.com.