Lawyers in the civil trial of suspended Episcopal Bishop Charles E. Bennison Jr., who is being sued by a priest he defrocked, painted sharply different pictures yesterday of villain and victim in a decade-long feud.
The unusual trial could establish a precedent for clergy in hierarchical religious institutions to turn to civil courts to challenge their superiors over personnel matters.
In his opening statement at the Montgomery County Courthouse, lawyer John Lewis portrayed his client, the Rev. David Moyer, as the target of a cynical plot by Bennison to "fraudulently" remove him from the priesthood.
Head of the five-county Diocese of Pennsylvania for 10 years, Bennison deposed Moyer in 2002 as a priest and rector of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont. Moyer, a conservative, had publicly clashed with the more liberal Bennison over the ordination of women and the acceptance of homosexuality and had repeatedly accused him of dishonesty.
Moyer, 57, is suing for unspecified damages on the ground that his removal not only was improper under Episcopal church law but also caused him suffering, isolation and loss of income.
"Bishop Bennison decided to get rid of his one public critic," Lewis told the jury, alleging that Bennison concealed documents, lied to diocesan officials, and denied Moyer a proper church trial after removing him from priesthood.
Mary Kohart, representing Bennison, challenged Lewis' portrayal of her client. "When Bishop Bennison became bishop . . . he took an oath to lead, to be bishop for all the diocese," she told the jurors.
However, Kohart said, Moyer had for years blocked Bennison from saying Mass, distributing communion or conducting confirmations - what she called "duties mandated for bishops" - and had refused all attempts at a compromise.
Both sides agreed that Bennison, now 63, and Moyer got off to a rocky start soon after Bennison became head of the diocese, comprising Philadelphia, Bucks, Montgomery, Chester and Delaware Counties, in 1998.
While seeking election as bishop, Bennison had told Moyer and other conservative rectors that he would continue his predecessor's practice of allowing a conservative bishop from outside the diocese to minister to traditionalist parishes.
Soon after he became head of the diocese, however, Bennison announced he would not continue the practice. That incensed Moyer and several other rectors, some of whom have since left the diocese.
Lewis intimated that Bennison, in order to win election, misled Moyer and others. Kohart countered that Bennison had discovered after becoming bishop that most clergy in the diocese opposed the visiting-bishop arrangement and that it was always intended to be temporary.
Bennison sat in the courtroom wearing a dark suit and red-striped tie instead of the traditional clerical collar and purple vest of a bishop.
Early this month, a special church court had ordered him stripped of his clerical status on the ground that he failed to intervene in his brother's sexual abuse of a girl in Bennison's California parish about 35 years ago.
Bennison has said he would appeal that sentence to a higher church court. Although he remains the nominal bishop of the diocese, the Episcopal Church USA suspended him in October from exercising the duties of his office when it ordered his church trial.
Lewis called three witnesses yesterday in hopes of establishing that Bennison had long plotted to remove Moyer.
Although Judge Joseph Smyth repeatedly sustained Kohart's objections to the testimony of two, Lewis elicited from the Rev. William Wood, a member of the diocesan standing committee, that Bennison had made a joke when he signed the order deposing Moyer in 2002, despite public professions of his "deep sadness" at the action he was taking.
"The bishop was not reeling off jokes," Wood said, referring to the remark as more of a "witticism."
Smyth ordered the trial to resume this morning at 8:45. Lewis said he thought Bennison would testify today.